The Platform


It is not unusual for parents to rejoice at the birth of their child.

But for Jude and his wife, it was a different story when after delivery, their son Onyedikachi was born with a cleft lip and palate in 2006 in Enugu, Nigeria.

“We felt so bad because that was the first time a child was born with such an anomaly in my community,” Jude said. “People were coming to my house and wondering what had happened.”

Although there is no single known cause of a cleft lip and palate, a combination of complex genetic and environmental factors like smoking, alcohol consumption, and certain kinds of medication during pregnancy can increase the risk of a child being born with the defect.

When left untreated, having a cleft condition can cause serious health issues, including difficulty in speaking, language development, dental problems, ear infections, hearing loss, and difficulty in eating which can lead to malnutrition.

In Africa, some babies born with it do not receive the surgery they need to correct the problem due to the perception that clefts are an evil curse or punishment for parental sins such as witchcraft or prostitution. This leads to the social isolation of such children and their families.


While some of those who visited said it was the medication that Jude’s wife took during pregnancy, others said it was how their son was created and that nothing could be done about it.

Before Jude and his wife left the hospital where their son was born, the doctor who delivered him told them that it was possible to correct the deformity through surgery. “He said he could not do it and advised us to take him to a different hospital. When we got there, they could not handle it and they directed us to a hospital in Enugu.”

Jude, pictured with his son, Onyedikachi.

When Jude and his wife got to the hospital, six months after their son was born, the doctors told them that it could be handled. In the same month, the cleft lip surgery was done and several months later, the cleft palate surgery was done.

“They had made sure that his weight and blood level were appropriate for the surgery. After we paid and the surgery was done, his lip and palate were corrected and we were happy again.”

But six years after the surgery, Jude noticed that his son’s speech was not clear enough. Jude brought his son back to the hospital and they said there was nothing else they could do.

In 2019, when Jude’s son was 13, he got a call asking him to bring his son in for speech therapy. Smile Train, the world’s leading cleft charity, had come on board at the time and Jude did not have to pay.

The speech therapist started working with Jude’s son. But there was a problem. It was discovered that the surgery was done incorrectly.

“We were given another appointment and my son had the earlier surgery repaired. Without asking us to pay any money, Smile Train also assigned us an orthodontist who has been helping to fix some irregularities in his teeth so he can properly pronounce words in addition to a speech therapist.”

Now, Jude is helping to let people know about Smile Train and what they do. He sent two people to the hospital where they had their cleft repaired.


Smile Train has undertaken over 25,000 cleft surgeries across Nigeria since 2007. With its “teach a man to fish” model, the NGO enables local medical professionals to provide safe, timely, high-quality cleft treatment to children.

“We have always championed partnering directly with local hospitals to strengthen health systems and empower local medical professionals to offer surgical services and comprehensive cleft care to children in their own communities,” Nkeiruka Obi, Smile Train’s Vice President, and Regional Director, told me.

So far, the NGO has established over 15 comprehensive cleft care partnerships in Nigeria including three for nutrition, five for speech, and seven for orthodontics, adding that Smile Train’s Nursing Care Saves Lives training has also helped build the local capacity of cleft care specialists through the training of over 175 nurses in the country since 2013.

In 2019, the NGO partnered with the West African College of Surgeons (WACS) to launch the Smile Train-WACS Cleft Surgical Certification. This will grant six surgeons per year over the next five years the opportunity to specialize in cleft care across West Africa.

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).