Rossa Maziku spent the first 54 years of her life living with a cleft lip and palate that extended from the roof of her mouth to the base of her nose.
Eating was difficult because she could not chew her food properly. Speaking was also a challenge, and during the winter months in her home in the Sunge Village in northern Tanzania, the dry wind often caused her palate to bleed. “People shunned me and it was so difficult to get married,” Maziku says. “My children were teased because of my cleft palate and lip.”
Last year, Maziku, a mother of eight, underwent a surgical procedure that corrected her condition. “For the first time in my life, I can eat and speak properly,” she says. “My family is so happy and I feel so beautiful now.”
Maziku’s surgery was funded by the Rafiki Surgical Missions, a charitable program supported by African Barrick Gold (ABG) and other mining companies operating in Tanzania. ABG organizes the annual fundraising dinner for the Rafiki program, which is held in Dar es Salaam. Between 2008 and 2010, the Rafiki Gala Dinner raised nearly $230,000.
Barrick, ABG’s majority shareholder, has been supporting the Rafiki Surgical Missions since 2004. In addition to the cleft lip and cleft palate surgical procedures, the program also funds reconstructive surgeries that reverse damage caused by burn injuries. All told, Barrick and ABG have helped fund more than 870 surgeries, many on children. Like Jumanne Maziku.
Maziku, no relation to Rossa Maziku, was born with a cleft lip. His father abandoned the family shortly after Jumanne was born because he believed his son’s condition was a curse that would bring misfortune on the family. Jumanne, who is five, underwent corrective surgery at the age of two. “I am alone with two children, but the surgery gave my son hope for a better life,” says Jumanne’s mother, Christina Maziku.
Hope was a common theme expressed by families whose children underwent surgery. “It was not in my thoughts that one day my child would be treated,” says Mathew Makungu, whose 13-year-old son, Daud, underwent cleft-lip surgery in 2011. “He is now eating and talking properly and no longer isolated and teased at school.”
Cleft lip and cleft palate are congenital deformities caused by abnormal development during pregnancy. A cleft lip is a physical split or separation of the two sides of the upper lip. A cleft palate is a split or opening in the roof of the mouth. People born with either condition are often shunned by their peers, and suffer from low self-esteem and social anxiety.
Cleft lip, with or without cleft palate, affects about one in 700 babies. While the cause is unknown, the facial deformity can be fixed by a relatively simple, one-hour operation. However, in Tanzania, many families cannot afford the surgery and the public health system does not provide funding.
Surgeries arranged by the Rafiki Surgical Mission are performed by doctors from Australia, who volunteer their time to participate in the missions. Volunteer teams include plastic surgeons, anesthetists, theater nurses and non-medical staff who help with logistics. While the teams’ airfare and accommodations are covered by the program, they perform the surgeries – sometimes more than 100 during each two-week mission – for free. They also train local Tanzanian health care professionals on how to carry out the operations.
“I think we all do it for, obviously, the benefit of the patients,” says Andrew Crocker, a plastic surgeon from Perth who has participated in two missions, and is about to embark on a third. “But it also gives you a feeling of intrinsic self-worth. You can make a huge difference in someone’s life and you’re utilizing your talents for something worthwhile.”
Crocker specializes in surgeries to reverse damage caused by burn injuries. There is only one burn unit, located in the capital of Dar es Salaam, in the country of 38 million people, Crocker says. Hence, many people who suffer burn injuries don’t receive proper treatment, he says.
Burn injuries to the hands are common in Tanzania because many people cook over open fires or with highly flammable kerosene stoves, Crocker says. In many cases, scar tissue resulting from an untreated burn injury causes the fingers literally to fuse together. The surgery that Crocker performs allows the fingers to straighten and extend.
“We usually can’t repair the damage completely, but patients get a lot of the movement back,” Crocker says. “When a person with a functional deformity realizes for the first time that functionality has been restored, they sometimes are very tearful. They really do appreciate it.”