The Platform


Arinze Chijioke tells the story of a young man who went from being rejected and mocked because he was born with a cleft lip and palate to becoming a pastor.

Growing up in a family of eight in Ikot Ekpene, a relatively small town in southwest Nigeria, 33-year-old Israel Joseph could only watch as his rights were trampled. The second child in his family, Israel was born with cleft lip and palate.

“Whenever I had a little quarrel with any of my siblings, they [mocked] me because I had a cleft. I was always crying, even when I knew I was right,” Israel told me during our interview.

When he was younger, Israel’s parents took him to a hospital in Akwa Ibom for surgery to correct his cleft. 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.

Israel JosephWhile some people told his parents that he was a curse and that he should be abandoned, others told them that he had a cleft because his mother played with a machete, and it cut her while she was pregnant with Israel. Others also told them that it was a punishment for a sin they had committed some years earlier.

A global challenge

While an estimated 19,000 children are born with a cleft every year in Africa, about 6,186 babies are born with it in Nigeria every year. Globally, a baby is born with a cleft deformity every three minutes. On average, one in every 500–750 live births results in a cleft.

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, difficulties in breathing, speaking, and eating which leads to malnutrition, Emily Manjeru, Smile Train’s Communications Manager for Africa, told me.

A life of isolation

In 2007, Israel moved to Enugu, in southeast Nigeria, to continue his education at the Institute of Management and Technology. He had been admitted to study Computer Science.

Before he was admitted, Israel recalls that he could not answer questions during his primary and secondary school years- even when he knew what to say- because other children laughed at him.

“They always said I could not speak,” he said. “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, Israel became introverted. He said he could not even look at himself in the mirror because he hated how he looked. It was as though he was carrying a curse.

At first, his parents felt that it was unnecessary to spend money on his education given his condition. They wondered if he would ever amount to anything.

While in school, 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. Four years later, he graduated in 2011, having completed his Higher National Diploma.

While puruing his studies, he had also trained as a pastor at the Redeemed Christian Church of God. He worked under several pastors as a deacon. He said that the church wanted to see how he could cope with his condition.

Finding help

In 2012, Israel attended an event where Doctor Ifeanyichukwu Onah, a plastic surgeon at the National Orthopaedic Hospital in Enugu, 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.”

Ifeanyichukwu Onah
Pictured: Dr. Ifeanyichukwu Onah.

At the end of the event, he met Onah who told him that Smile Train sponsors free surgeries for individuals who have 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 his anomaly.

“Israel was 25 years old when he came to see us with the cleft of the palate and while he already had a lip repair, it needed revision,” Doctor Onah told me, who has attended workshops on improving his skills to perform cleft surgeries.

Israel was admitted in March of 2012 and had the surgery the very next day. While his lip was operated on and completely revised, the palate was closed. Onah said that such surgeries take a bit of time.

“Because he was an adult, there was a little bit of bleeding, but he did not need to have a blood transfusion at the end of the surgery,” Onah explained.

After he was discharged following the surgery, Israel went home with instructions about his diet. He was asked to avoid chewing and hard foods for the next few weeks. He also had to begin speech therapy after the wound had healed.

Israel JosephWhen he completely healed and returned home his parents were surprised and asked him what had happened, and he told them how surgery corrected his cleft lip and palate.

Emily 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 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, Israel 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 in Enugu.

In September 2021, Israel married Chinwe and in August of this year, they welcomed a daughter, Joy, who was born without a cleft, dispelling the notion that parents born with a cleft will pass it down to their children. He said his wife has been supportive of him.

Israel hopes to return to school and obtain a Master’s degree in Education. He says he has been trying to let people know that being born with a cleft is not a death sentence and that it can be corrected.

Now, many of those who knew Israel when he had a cleft lip and palate don’t recognize him anymore. Each time he travels home, his former classmates see him, and they come close and try to find out if it’s he or someone else.

“I can go anywhere I want, and people love to associate with me,” he said. “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.”

Arinze Chijioke is a Nigerian-based freelance journalist covering climate change and environment, business and SMSs, health, anti-corruption, social justice, gender-based violence and human rights. His stories have appeared on Aljazeera, Global Investigative Journalism Network, International Journalists Network, International Policy Digest and International Centre for Investigative Reporting among other outlets. He has won multiple awards and nominations, including the maiden edition of the Cleft Awareness Media Award 2021 and the 1st Runner-Up in the 2020 PWC Media Excellence Awards for SMEs reporting. He was one among 21 finalists out of 711 for the 2021 West Africa Media Excellence Awards (WAMECA).