As Operation Smile ambassador, I attended a mission in Lilongwe, Malawi in July 2013, where some 150 children received life-changing surgery. Operation Smile does corrective facial reconstructions on children and adults born with cleft lip and -palate disfigurements.

During the screening, 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 so our relationship was born. I asked her mom what her daughters name was. “Mdalakwangi,” she replied. I asked what it meant and was shocked at her answer; “Problem,” she said. Whilst I could see the serious bi-lateral cleft lips and understood that this poor child must lead a tough life, I could not get my head around how a mother could call her child Problem. 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 following two days laughing and playing with Problem 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 I call her?” In a spontaneous moment I said, “Grace.” Her mom nodded with a beautiful smile. “What is grace in the Malawian language?” I asked. “Chisomo,” she said. We all had tears of joy in our eyes.

But then, a day before her surgery, Grace began coughing badly. The paediatrician told me that she had bronchitis and could not undergo surgery. We were devastated. And so, this time with tears of sadness, they boarded the bus for the long drive home, and Grace remained Problem. I made a promise to myself and to Problem’s mom that I would return the following year and take her into surgery myself.

Now, a year later, I am so very happy after seeing Problem 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 and special child into the operating theatre, placing the mask over her face and watching her fall into a deep sleep. I watched the sheer skill of the surgeon’s hands as he recrafted her face. I was literally seeing Problem become Grace.

Operation Smile SA is a MySchool MyVillage MyPlanet beneficiary. Why not select them as your beneficiary (or one of them), and know that you are “Changing lives one smile at a time” every time you swipe your card.

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