Faustina’s weary eyes surveyed the open-air convention hall that will become her home for the next few days.
She watched as volunteers worked through sweltering heat to convert this space into accommodations for her, 74 others living with cleft and their families. They’ve travelled from across Ghana to Koforidua with the hope of receiving free cleft surgeries from Operation Smile.
She stuck close by her father, Mohammed, as he told a volunteer the story of their 15-hour, three-leg bus journey from their remote village Ghana’s Western Region.
Alongside exhaustion, there was also pain in Faustina’s eyes.
For 17 years, she lived with the burden of her unrepaired cleft lip. It’s places in Ghana like her hometown of Amoya where the deeply rooted stigma of cleft is the most severe.
“I can’t go anywhere because of my cleft,” she said. “I can’t attend school. I just spend my days helping my mother at home.
“I have my family, my siblings and parents, but I have no friends and I feel sad. I know that if I have the surgery, I will make friends.”
Protective of their child, her father and stepmother decided that she wouldn’t attend school and discouraged her from venturing out into public. They feared she’d be the victim of emotional and physical abuse.
Before her journey here, most of time that Faustina spent in public was when she’d walk to church to attend services with her mother and five younger siblings. From a young age, she knew that people pointed her out and talked about her in hushed tones as she passed by.
Mohammed said that he’s always accepted Faustina’s condition as God’s will. When his daughter was born, doctors told him that surgery could fix her lip. However, the procedure couldn’t be performed at their district hospital, and it would be too expensive for him to afford.
After he brought Faustina home from the hospital, nearly all of Mohammed’s friends disowned him. Most of them feared that her cleft could spread to them (which isn’t possible – cleft lip and cleft palate are congenital conditions). Mohammed said he has a friend who still refuses to eat or drink at his home to this day.
Twelve years passed before Mohammed was told about Operation Smile and the medical mission it was conducting in Accra, Ghana’s capital city. Unfortunately, by the time he received the news, the mission had already come to an end.
In 2014, Mohammed learned of another surgical mission (unaffiliated with Operation Smile) that was coming to Takoradi, the nearest big city. He and Faustina travelled to the mission site, but registration was full, and they were turned away.
Everything changed for Faustina in November 2017, when her father heard that a neighbour took his child to a recent Operation Smile mission in Koforidua. While the neighbour’s son was too young to receive surgery then, his father gave Mohammed Operation Smile Ghana’s phone number.
With patient coordinator Clement Ofosuhemeng arranging transportation for Mohammed and Faustina’s trip to Koforidua, a beacon of hope for her future finally appeared.
“If I get the surgery, I can go back to school and study hairdressing and become a hairdresser,” she said. “I have been praying to get this surgery.”
But first, Operation Smile Ghana medical volunteers had to determine if Faustina was healthy enough to receive surgery. She received a medical evaluation as well as individual consultations from a variety of specialists offering comprehensive cleft care, including surgeons, dentists, child life specialists and speech language pathologists.
The next day, Faustina and Mohammed were elated to learn that she was selected to receive surgery. For two anxious days, she waited for her chance to receive the procedure for which she’d been praying.
On the morning of her surgery, her surgeon, Operation Smile Ghana’s medical director, Dr. Opoku Ampomah, greeted her before they walked hand-in-hand into the operating room.
With a fatherly presence and a calm, confident and soothing delivery, Opoku explained everything that Faustina could expect throughout her procedure in their local language of Twi. She reflected his tone, nodding in understanding and smiling as Opoku prepares to change the trajectory of her life within the next hour.
“Faustina is a typical example of someone who’s born disadvantaged because of her cleft condition,” Opoku said. “You can imagine how much stigmatisation she’s had to deal with in the past, so for people like that, really, I’m grateful that we were able to reach her.”
After Opoku closed the final sutures of Faustina’s surgery, he paused and leaned his head down toward her right ear.
With love and compassion resonating in his voice, he delivered a heart-warming message.
“I told her that she will now be the Western Region’s representative on ‘Ghana’s Most Beautiful’ (a pageant-style reality TV show),” Opoku says with a warm smile.
After he showed Faustina her new smile on his phone screen, she sprang up and offered thanks to everyone in the room. Her eyes were filled with tears of joy when she gazed at her face in the mirror.
Mohammed said: “Now that Operation Smile has helped my daughter, today when I look at her, I feel happiness within me.”
A little more than a year after Faustina’s surgery, we travelled to her community to learn how her life has changed.
Faustina’s village is set in the lush rolling hills of the Central Region. Here, under a small green hut, the sounds of the laughter, conversation and the buzzing of manual sewing machines emanate from its covered porch.
This is where Faustina is tailoring her future.
Faustina is a sewing apprentice; her energy and demeanour stand in stark contrast to when we first met her at the Koforidua mission. Her eyes, which once reflected a life of pain and isolation, are bright and joyful. She carries herself with confidence, and we soon learn of her ambitions.
“I wanted to be a hairdresser, but after the surgery, I gave it some thought and realised that I really wanted to be a seamstress,” Faustina says. “If, God willing, I’m able to graduate, I will be able to start my own shop and earn money to take care of my needs as well as my parents’. Because they have taken good care of me, it rests on my shoulders to also take care of them when they grow older.”
Faustina’s best friends are her fellow apprentices, and the young women joyfully study their craft under the tutelage of Memunatu, the village’s head seamstress. She says that she expects her to have a bright future in the craft.
“What I’ve seen from Faustina is very encouraging,” Memunatu says. “When you teach her something, she has that enthusiasm to learn, and she asks a lot of questions. And since she started, she has been improving.”
Mohammed tells us that he often catches himself staring at his daughter in awe of her new smile.
“As soon as she turns her eyes to look at me, I turn the other way around and I laugh in my head,” he says. “When she looks away, I look at her again. So many things go through my mind…
“I know that life has its trends. You pass through difficulties before you get to the promised land, before you make it. So for me, I see her life going through this process. Operation Smile gave her that surgery, and it’s making life easier for her to push for achieving her dreams.”