From A “Mental Prison” To Freedom: How Cleft Care Changed This Child’s Life Forever.

a little boy named nkunda, who has a cleft, posing for a photo

Muswamba wanted nothing more than to have her son, Nkunda, get surgery to heal his cleft.

Unfortunately, living in a remote village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the cost was more than they could afford. This made Muswama determined to instill a strong sense of confidence in her son, knowing that not everyone would be kind to him because of his birth difference.

a little boy named nkunda who has a cleft smiling while wearing a "smile train" sticker
Smile Train

“I was always there to cheer him up and assured him that there was nothing wrong with the way he looked,” she said.

The time spent building up Nkunda’s confidence helped make him quite a happy fellow who looked forward to his bright future. In fact, right when school started, he decided that one day he’d become a teacher.

Then the bullying began.

It became so relentless that, eventually, even the walks to and from school became unbearable. To avoid ridicule, he began to hide in nearby bushes anytime he’d see or hear a group of children.

As time went on, the harassment only continued to get worse. At some point, other children stopped calling him by his own name, replacing it with hurtful things instead.

a little boy named nkunda, who has a cleft, looking down at the ground
Smile Train

Nkunda had reached his breaking point. To soothe himself from the anguish he was dealing with, he began to cut himself, something he said helped ease his pain. It was around this time that Muswama reluctantly agreed to pull him out of school.

Three years passed. Not only was Nkunda years behind other children his age, but he was still struggling with the difficulties he faced having a cleft.

Just when it seemed as though all was hopeless, Muswama learned about a nonprofit called Smile Train. Through them, Nkunda could get the surgery he needed — at absolutely no cost to them.

a little boy named nkunda smiling and giving a thumbs up as he shakes the hands of a medical professional at a hospital where he will be getting surgery to heal his cleft
Smile Train

There was just one hurdle: The three-mile distance between their home and the hospital. That might not seem like much to those of us who have a car or access to public transportation, but it’s so much more on foot.

But what may seem like a hurdle to some was nothing to Muswama and Nkunda. After years and years of struggle, the one thing they’d been hoping for all this time was just a mere three-mile walk away, and nothing could stop them now.

They likely had no idea what to expect when they arrived at the hospital, but one thing they certainly didn’t expect was more than a dozen families with children just like Nkunda waiting their turn for their own life-changing surgery.

a woman named muswama smiling as she poses for a photo with her two sons, one of which she is holding in her arms and the other, nkunda, who is sitting next to her
Smile Train

All this time, the two of them felt so alone in their struggles, but, in a single moment, their feelings of being misunderstood were replaced with those of comfort.

Fast-forward to Nkunda’s life post-surgery — the excited, knowledge-hungry little boy that he once was had finally returned. As soon as they got back home, he even happily informed his mom that he was ready to go back to school.

a little boy named nkunda giving a thumbs up and posing after having surgery to treat his cleft
Smile Train

“You have changed my son’s future for the best,” Muswama said. “You have given him the best gift ever. My son was in mental prison, but you have released him. Thank you, Smile Train.”

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