By Joyce Chimbi

When baby Wendo was born in 2021, her arrival was met with joy and at the same time, utter shock. The girl was born with a cleft lip and cleft palate and not only was this a first in the family on her mother and father’s side, her father was convinced that the family must have been bewitched.

“I was the first one to see the baby as the mother was recovering from the operation to deliver Wendo. I looked at her and could not believe my eyes, even the staff at the hospital where she was born somewhere in Kisii County were equally shocked. It was as if they have never seen a baby with this condition at the facility,” says Baba Wendo.

“I started calling all the doctors I knew because the hospital was preparing an ambulance to bring us to Nairobi for urgent further medical attention. But one of the doctors asked me to take a photo of the baby and immediately told us that the girl had a cleft lip and palate and that the condition could be corrected at three months.”

One year since doors opened at BelaRisu Medical Center in Ngara Nairobi, Wendo is one of 8,179 patients that have benefitted from free life-changing, dignifying and hope-restoring surgery through the Bela Risu Foundation, a reputable non-profit organization headquartered in Nairobi.

Bela Risu, Latin for beautiful smile, is the outcome that the medical team at the center deliver through surgeries to people affected by craniofacial deformities. Clefts are a common birth defect. So common is a cleft lip and cleft palate that 39,500 patients are on the waiting list for this life transformative surgery at BelaRisu Medical Center.

Dr Martin Kamau, co-founder, BelaRisu Medical Centre says that a cleft occurs when certain body parts and structures do not fuse together during fetal development. Clefts can involve the lip and or the roof of the mouth (palate).

“Cleft lip and cleft palate are congenital conditions in which a baby’s lip or mouth does not form properly during early pregnancy. These conditions can lead to feeding, speech, hearing, and dental problems, and require surgical intervention,” he explains.

According to data by Smile Train, every 4.5 minutes – somewhere in the world – a child with cleft is born. Globally, one in every 700 babies are born with a cleft lip and/or palate. Closer home, every day, an average of six children born in Kenya have cleft. Of all children born with cleft, 30 to 60 percent will need speech and language therapy.

“When I first saw my son, I was in shock. We had never had such an experience in my family and I asked Allah where I could have gone wrong. I thought about my clinic visits during the pregnancy and wondered if there is something I might have done to deliver a baby with a cleft lip and palate. I was depressed and could not eat for an entire week. Today, I am very happy because there is a beautiful smile on my son’s face,” says Mama Amir, another beneficiary of the Bela Risu mission to bring a smile to as many faces as possible.

Senator Veronica Maina says that it is a step in the right direction when people and communities look for medical solutions to the health problems that plague them. Instead of concluding that, “all that is hidden from us, is mysterious and beyond our understanding is witchcraft.”

“Bela Risu Medical Center is delivering the promise of Article 43 of the Constitution. You have distinguished yourself in your mission of bringing hope, joy and happiness to those born with a cleft lip and cleft palate,” she said.

Kefa Omanga, from the office of the Governor, Nairobi City County said that the medical center is a much-valued partner in the mission to improve access to quality health care in the County.

“There are 102 public health facilities in the County which is a tenth of all health facilities in Nairobi County. Our county’s health system is supported by 7,500 Community Health Promoters (CHPs) and these are our frontline health care workers. We have already put the CHPs on a monthly stipend and this is a first. Overall, we have 6,000 health care workers on our payroll and health is the top spender in our budgetary allocation,” he says.

Against this backdrop, the Bela Risu train of beautiful smiles continues to strive for a dignified livelihood for individuals with craniofacial conditions and create opportunities for them to reach their full potential functionally and socially.