Mariama, six, starts school after life-changing surgery

In a rural town in southern Senegal lives 5-year-old Awa, surrounded by her loving family. She has always been close with them – especially with her Uncle Woury. Since the moment Awa was born with a cleft lip, her uncle’s greatest wish was that she would someday find healing.

Woury was there the day Awa was born. Awa’s mother, Rougui, was scared when she saw the baby, not knowing what the cleft lip would mean for her future. In the weeks following the birth, Woury invited them to stay with him so he could support his sister during this difficult time.

As Awa grew up in her village, she encountered the hardships of living with a cleft lip. “People in my village did not cast her out, but they laughed at her, and she was ashamed. They would say ‘look at how your mouth and lip are’, which made her embarrassed. She used to hide her mouth with her hand,” said Rougui.

Both Awa’s parents and her uncle kept looking for an answer to their prayers, but they couldn’t see any solution in their future.

A mother who feared her daughter could never go to school and thought her bowed legs were incurable is calling her transformation by a surgical charity ‘a miracle’. 

Six-year-old Mariama from Sedhiou in Senegal, West Africa, was just four when her legs began to bend outwards. 

Her mother, Sifaye, said: “When I noticed her legs like that, I was really worried. I wasn’t able to sleep enough. I was so scared.”  

Mariama’s condition worsened as she grew, and her mother was concerned she would face more and more isolation. She could not run and jump like her friends and became self-conscious. 

“Her friends laughed at her because she couldn’t walk fast or run, she was always behind,” Sifaye added.

Her parents made the difficult decision to keep her out of school. 

Sifaye, a mother of four, said: “The school is so far, that is why I didn’t send her there. Because she can’t walk a long distance without complaining that she was tired. If she went to school, she wouldn’t be able to walk back home.” 

The family sought hard for a cure for the next year but found nothing. 

Her mother said: “During that period, we tried every type of medicine, but nothing changed. When we took her to the hospital, they told us that they can’t cure her.”  

They were told that her legs would likely continue to curve for the rest of her life. 

A year later, in a village two hours away, Sifaye’s brother Mane heard about Mercy Ships, an international charity with two hospital ships that deliver free surgeries to those with little access to safe medical care. He met a member of the charity’s patient selection team assessing potential surgical patients. 

Laura Blundell, Physical Therapist, cuts into Mariama’s cast with the help of Mame Birame Sy, day crew.

Mane said, “He told me they would offer free surgeries for patients. He showed me photos of people they had already treated. The pictures of the previous patients convinced me. I wished the same for my niece.” 

He immediately told his sister.  

Despite the fact that Sifaye was full of fear and had never travelled more than two hours from her home village, she travelled two days with her daughter to get to the port of Dakar, where the hospital ship  the Africa Mercy® was docked. 

Sifaye said, “I was absolutely afraid of taking her [Mariama] to the ship.” 

She said the first few days were constant bouts of homesickness, but the team on board quickly made them feel at home. For the first time, they also met children with conditions like Mariama’s.  

“I was happy to meet other mothers who knew what I was going through, and it was good for Mariama to see she was not alone,” Sifaye said. 

Volunteer orthopedic surgeon Dr. Stan Kinsch from Luxembourg, who treated Mariama, says that bowed legs can occur due to malnutrition.  

Unfortunately, due to inadequate medical access in some African countries, the condition is more prevalent on the continent compared to other parts of the world.  

“In developed countries, these conditions are treated early so they don’t require surgery. But here they are recognized late, and appropriate treatment isn’t available, so they develop into extreme forms,” said Dr. Kinsch. 

After surgery and three months of physiotherapy, Sifaye and Mariama were ready to go home.  

When Sifaye saw her daughter’s straight legs for the first time, she was overwhelmed with joy.  

She exclaimed, “I was so surprised; I thought her legs would always be bent for the rest of her life. Seeing them like that today was wonderful. We were never going to afford to get her surgery, so this is a miracle for us.” 

Mariama has now successfully started school.