(Mbombela) – When Athalia was handed her new born son for the first time she admits to being scared by his appearance. Siyabonga was born with a cleft lip and Athalia had never seen anything like it before.
Luckily for her, the doctors were able to explain that the condition was correctable and that there would be an Operation Smile mission taking place at the very same hospital later that year.
Athalia contacted Operation Smile South Africa (OSSA) and she was advised to attend the mission held in Mbombela in September 2015. In the interim she returned home with her son and faced a community confused and afraid.
“My community asked why he looked this way, they didn’t understand. They were scared and wanted to know how he would end up in life,” remembers Athalia.
Apart from the challenge presented by the community’s ignorance of cleft lip and palate Athalia’s greatest barrier to care was the issue of transport and cost. Based around 90 minutes from the nearest town Athalia and Siyabonga live off the beaten track and so finding transport has proved problematic.
Operation Smile assisted the two in finding their way to the mission and Athalia admits a sense of relief upon arriving and seeing more children with the same condition as Siyabonga. “I was surprised, I thought it was only Siyabonga but it isn’t,” says Athalia.
Siyabonga was selected for surgery and although his mother was unquestionably nervous she remained confident that all would go well. When she was reunited with Siyabonga, she could not believe her eyes. “I was so happy.”
Six months later during a post-operative trip Athalia is still filled with joy at the change in Siyabonga. He sprints around the garden opposite their home and while Athalia says that he is by nature a shy child that since attending nursery school he has definitely come out of his shell.
When Athalia considers the confusion that her neighbours expressed after seeing the results of the surgery, “they thought his cleft had been fixed with flesh from his leg,” she confirms that educating communities about cleft lip and/or palate is important.
For now though all she wants is for Siyabonga to be happy because she smiles, “the weight has been lifted.”