By Nkeiruka Obi – Here’s the story of a woman you should know: Konate Diomande Siami, a mother from Côte d’Ivoire in Africa who gave birth to five children, three of which were born with clefts. One of her children with a cleft died, because he had difficulty eating and the family could not afford surgery to repair his cleft. Her husband was out of work, so she sold filtered water just to be able to provide a studio apartment for her family. Her community no longer accepted her. They mistakenly assumed there must be something wrong with her for giving birth to children with clefts, so she became an outcast. 

Stories like these were an important influence on my decision to leave my career in banking after nearly 15 years. Before my journey into humanitarianism, I was a Senior Business Manager at United Bank for Africa, developing the bank’s business strategy to create new opportunities and grow our existing accounts, but I knew that I could be doing so much more. Now, as Program Director of West and Central Africa for Smile Train, the world’s largest cleft organization, I support 100%-free cleft repair surgery and essential cleft treatment for thousands of children, and their families, in need.

It all started when I met a woman who worked for Smile Train and I learned about children with clefts for the first time. Before our conversation, I had never seen a child with a cleft, but I was instantly curious and went online to do my own research. I would come to learn that clefts are one of the most common craniofacial birth differences, affecting 200,000+ new babies globally each year, and are a prominent health issue for children in Africa. Untreated clefts contribute to a higher risk of malnutrition, infections, abandonment and even death. Many children with untreated clefts are also socially isolated and unable to attend school.

I wanted to understand the impact of clefts first-hand, so I posted information about Smile Train with my phone number on the notice board of my local church for those who were interested in learning more. In just one week, I got 17 calls about 17 different patients. From that point on, I knew that this was the work I wanted to do, but I did not yet realize the challenges ahead. West Africa is a vast region with diverse cultures and countries, hundreds of spoken languages, civil wars, terrorist activities, harsh cleft stigma, a shortage of trained surgeons and a lack of local health infrastructure.

I knew that the status quo was not going to help the backlog of those in need or support the 12,000+ new babies born with clefts in the region each year – we needed new programs. One program we initiated in countries across West Africa was Cleft Awareness Weeks to combat the rampant superstitions and myths that act as barriers to care and, even worse, can be life-threatening to children with clefts. During Cleft Awareness Weeks, we visit religious organizations, car parks, hospitals, and schools to educate people about cleft. We share that clefts are not bad omens and that cleft treatment can change a child’s life. 

As I spent more time organizing cleft awareness campaigns, I recognized that women often suffered the blame for the birth of a child with a cleft and would often have to raise children alone or otherwise be marginalized. We started the First Lady’s Initiative to involve the wives of governors, presidents, and community leaders as ambassadors to share at every opportunity that women are not the cause of a cleft birth and that cleft treatment is available to those who need it.

As a mother to four of my own children, including triplets, my dream is that I will never have to share another story of a mother who lost a child because she didn’t know that Smile Train’s services exist. As for Konate, our local partners recently performed surgery on her two children with clefts: a one-year-old and a nine-year-old. Now, the nine-year-old is enrolled in our speech therapy program and we are excited to see him making progress.    

While I encourage all women to pursue their dreams and consider humanitarian efforts, you don’t need to change your career to make an impact. There are ways we can all make a difference. Be kind. Engage in authentic conversation. Support organizations that empower women. Today is International Women’s Day, a global day to celebrate the achievements of women, but we should celebrate the big and small achievements of women every day. 


About the contributor

Nkeiruka Obi, Program Director of West and Central Africa for Smile Train, has helped the organization support more than 25,000 cleft surgeries to-date and expand their programs for comprehensive cleft care treatment. To learn more about Smile Train and the care they support for children around the world, visit smiletrain.org and follow Smile Train on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Photos courtesy of Smile Train.