As an Operation Smile ambassador, Braam Malherbe attended the 2014 mission to Lilongwe, Malawi in July 2014, where 144 children received life-changing surgery. Operation Smile is a non-profit organisation that provides free surgery to patients with cleft lips, cleft palates and other facial deformities. This is his story of one little girl, and putting smiles on faces of many for the first time.

I first visited Malawi in 2013 with Operation Smile. During the screenings where children are evaluated for surgery, a little girl stood out in the crowd. She kept peeking at me with a shy smile from behind her mother’s skirt.  I waved and smiled and our relationship was born. I asked her mom what her daughters name was. “Mdalakwangi”, she replied. When I asked what it meant I was shocked at her answer: “It means, ‘What did I do wrong?’” she said. I looked at the child’s bi-lateral cleft lip and understood that she must lead an extremely difficult life, but I could not get my head around how a mother could call her child such a negative name. It was explained to me that when they saw her at birth they asked God what they had done wrong to have this problem.

I spent the next two days playing with Mdalakwangi until the final selection for surgery was announced. I looked through the pages of names and found her name fourth from the bottom; I was overjoyed and shared the news with her mom that she would receive surgery. I then asked, “Surely you want to consider changing her name now that she will look normal?” I was flabbergasted when she asked, “What would you like to call her?” In a spontaneous moment I suggested, “Grace”. Her mom nodded with a beautiful smile. “What is grace in the Malawian Chechewa language?” I asked. “Chisomo”, she said. We all had tears of joy in our eyes.

But, a day before her surgery, Grace began coughing badly. The paediatrician informed me that she had bronchitis and could not receive surgery. We were devastated. And so, with sadness, they boarded the bus for the long drive home. I made a promise to myself and to her mom that I would return a year later and take her into surgery myself.

A year later, on the August 2014 mission, we saw “Mdalakwangi” again. She smiled shyly at first and then it was laughter and games as though we were old friends. I will never ever forget carrying this beautiful child into the operating theatre and watching her being put under general anaesthesia. I watched the sheer skill of the surgeon’s hands as he recrafted her face. I was watching Madalakwangi become Chisomo (Grace).

Her story is one of many extraordinary life-changing transformations made possible in Malawi by the Operation Smile team of 73 staff, medical and non-medical volunteers and supporters. Working intensively over just 10 days, the crew performed intricate operations on patients ranging from babies to 65 year olds, completing 175 procedures on 144 patients.

Operation Smile SA is a beneficiary on the MySchool, MyVillage, MyPlanet card system. Why not select them as your beneficiary and know that you are “Changing lives one smile at a time” every time you swipe your card! Do One Thing (DOT) and swipe to change lives.

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