A little girl has been able to start school with her new confident smile after receiving surgery from a medical charity to treat a birth defect.
Aissatou from Louga, in northwestern Senegal, was born with a cleft lip and palate, and the stigma around the condition in her home village left her trapped at home, isolated and withdrawn.
Due to the unkind reaction she received, and the difficulties the condition brought, her father Ousmane and mother Khadija did their best to protect Aissatou. They felt the need to cover her head in public and felt forced into a decision to keep her out of school.
Left untreated, a cleft lip and palate can lead to difficulties eating, drinking, speaking, and hearing loss.
Farmer Ousmane used the proceeds from his harvest every year to try and find someone to repair his infant daughter’s cleft lip and palate. But every year, he was disappointed.
Ousmane said: “I love my daughter so much, I would never stop looking for her healing.”
In 2019, when Aissatou was just a toddler, Ousmane heard that a hospital ship from international aid charity Mercy Ships was coming to the port of Dakar to provide free surgeries and medical training.
He made the journey to the port with Aissatou, and they were thrilled to receive a surgery appointment. But the joy was short-lived as the operation had to be delayed due to COVID-19.
Ousmane and Aissatou had to return home and wait for the ship to return.
He said: “In my heart I knew that these people would help my daughter. I just kept praying and hoping that the ship would return.”
Aissatou was four years old when she boarded the Africa Mercy hospital ship in 2022 for surgery.
Despite being a curious little girl full of life she only played alone and not with other children on board.
Ousmane came with Aissatou as a caregiver, while her mother Khadija waited anxiously at home, “I couldn’t eat or drink,” she said.
Aissatou’s father, Ousmane was also nervous, “during the surgery I was afraid,” he said as he recalled the difficult hours of waiting.
“I don’t know anything about surgery, and I had no idea what was happening. It took a long time before she came back, but when she came back, I was so happy!”
Once the bandages were off, Ousmane and his daughter could both see the transformation. Where before Aissatou’s cleft had been, there was smooth skin. Aissatou stared at herself in the mirror, looking fascinated.
Senegalese translator Boubacar Diallo who worked on the ship during Aissatou’s stay on board her joy was contagious.
He said, “The first thing I see changing on her is the smile. After the surgery she was smiling all the time.
“After surgery she was free. Playing and running everywhere, playing with other kids. She was dancing a lot.”
Her father said: “Her life will change so much now. She will be able to speak properly and go to school.”
When Aissatou returned home, some of those changes were evident immediately. She was embraced by her village and no longer hid her face. She started school, began playing with the other children and helped her father on the farm.
One of the village elders shared: “We had lost all hope. We thought she was going to die like this. Nobody believed that she would be healed.”