By Arinze Chijioke
In this report, Arinze Chijioke tells the story of a young man who went from being rejected and mocked because he was born with a cleft to handling congregations as a pastor after he received surgery.
Growing up in a family of eight in Ikot Ekpene, a historic town in the southern state of Akwa Ibom, Israel Joseph could only watch each time his rights were trampled upon.
The second child in his family, Joseph was born with a cleft of the lip and palate on the left side 33 years ago.
A cleft lip contains an opening in the upper lip that may extend into the nose, and a cleft palate occurs when the palate contains an opening into the nose, says the Wikipedia entry on it.
“Whenever I had a little quarrel with any of my siblings, they made a mockery of me because I had a cleft. I was always crying, even when I knew I was right,” says Joseph.
When he was younger, his parents took him to a hospital in Akwa Ibom for surgery. But after the surgery, the cleft was not properly corrected. Whatever he ate, both solid and liquid came out through his nose. His health was badly affected.
He said some people told his parents that he was a curse and that he should be abandoned, others told them that he had cleft because his mother played with a machete and it cut her when she was pregnant with him. Others also told them that it was a punishment for the sin they had committed years ago.
A global challenge
Although there is no single known cause for a cleft lip or palate, a combination of complex genetic and environmental factors like smoking, alcohol, and certain kinds of medication during pregnancy can increase the risk of a child being born with the defect.
Sadly, many of these children around the world do not receive the surgery they need to correct the anomaly and, as a result, they have hearing loss, and difficulties in breathing, speaking and eating, which lead to malnutrition, said PR & Communications Manager for Africa at Smile Train, Emily Manjeru.
A life of isolation
In 2007, Joseph came to the South-Eastern state of Enugu to continue his education at the Institute of Management and Technology (IMT). He had been admitted to study Computer Science.
Before he was admitted, Joseph recalls, he could not answer questions in his primary and secondary school, even when he knew what to say, because other children laughed at him.
“They always said I could not speak,” he says, adding, “I was discriminated against; many of my classmates could not look at me. They could not sit close to me in class.”
As a result, Joseph grew up always staying on his own. He says he could not even look at himself in the mirror because he hated his appearance.
At first, his parents felt that it was unnecessary to spend money on his education, given his condition. According to him, they wondered if he would ever become somebody great in life.
At IMT, he hardly made contributions in class because he was afraid that his classmates would mock him. He could not express himself, even when he wanted to. In 2011, he graduated, having completed his Higher National Diploma.
He had also trained as a pastor at the Redeemed Christian Church of God.
In 2012, one year after his graduation, Joseph attended an event where a plastic surgeon at the National Orthopaedic Hospital, Enugu, Ifeanyichukwu Onah, talked about cleft and the fact that it can be corrected through surgery.
“When I heard him, I wondered how possible that was and how much it was going to cost. I was ready to do anything possible to get my looks right. I knew I could always return to school,” he says.
At the end of the event, he met Onah, who told him a non-governmental organisation, Smile Train, sponsors free surgeries for individuals with a cleft and that he needed only to present himself. They exchanged contacts, and he was told when to come to the hospital.
On the day of the surgery, he did not inform his parents because he feared that they would discourage him since they had given up hope that anything could be done to correct the anomaly.
“Joseph was 25 years and 8 months old when he came to see us with the cleft of the palate, and while he already had a lip repair, it needed revision,” says Onah, who had attended workshops on improving his skills to undertake cleft surgeries.
Joseph was admitted on March 27, 2012 and had his surgery the next day. While his lip was operated on and completely revised, the palate was closed. Onah says that such combination surgery takes a bit of time.
“Because he was an adult, there was a little bit of bleeding, but he did not need to have blood transfusion at the end of the surgery,” he explains.
After he was discharged a day following the surgery, Joseph went home with instructions about his diet. He was asked to avoid chewing and avoid hard foods for the next few weeks. He also had to begin speech therapy after the wound had healed.
When he was completely healed, and he returned home, his parents were surprised and asked him what had happened. He told them how a Smile Train-sponsored surgery had helped to correct the malformation.
Manjeru said that Smile Train, through its model of true sustainability, has been providing training, funding and resources to empower local medical professionals in over 70 countries to provide 100 per cent free comprehensive cleft care in their own communities.
She explained that the NGO has carried out over 1.5 million cleft surgeries for people of all ages since it was founded in 1999, adding that the goal is to give every child with a cleft the opportunity for a full and healthy life.
A changed life
After the surgery, Joseph was promoted to a senior pastor and got a parish of his own. Since then, he has managed a congregation of over 200 worshipers across five different churches. He is currently in charge of the City of Grace Parish, GRA Enugu.
In September 2021, he got married to Chinwe Edeoga, and in August this year, she gave birth to a daughter, Joy Oluomachi, who was born without a cleft, dispelling the notion that a married man or woman born with a cleft must give birth to children with cleft. He said his wife has been supportive of him.
Joseph hopes to return to school and obtain a master’s degree in education. He says he has been trying to let people know that cleft is not a death sentence and that it can be corrected.
Now, many of those who knew when he had cleft cannot recognise him anymore. Each time he travels home, and his classmates in primary and secondary school see him, they come close and try to find out if it’s he or someone else, he says.
“I can go anywhere I want, and people love to associate with me, “he says, “I don’t have any limitation or any form of intimidation again. I have made so many friends and have many pictures on my phone now”.