Over 1 million Africans are affected by some form of cleft lip or palate, and in a place like Nigeria, the social stigma alone can be enough to kill you. We spent two weeks in the Kwara State with a group of humanitarians fighting to change that.
I sauntered toward the front of the plane, groggy and with a slight headache. As I turned the corner to exit, past the center galley of the plane, the humidity slapped me in the chest. When I left Atlanta it was cold, something like 50 degrees, and raining.
So this was different.
To be expected though, right? This was Africa, after all. Nigeria to be exact. Lagos, the 11th largest city in the world, to be even more exact.
The jetway, looked like any jetway. A hall. Bright red walls and blue tube lighting running the length of where the ceiling and these walls met.
Still, it was really humid, and not really getting any better as I continued down the hall. Walking into one of the main courses of Murtala Muhammed International Airport I realized why I hadn’t cooled down. Across the room, there was a large, refrigerator sized object humming away. Even in a room full of people mumbling and shuffling, I could hear it. This was the air conditioner. There was no central air in this international airport. At least this portion.
So this was different, too.
After making it through customs, I met up with members of my team, the Alliance for Smiles team, a nonprofit organization that goes on missions throughout the world, with the main objective of operat-ing on cleft lips and palates. This mission was to Ilorin, Nigeria, in the Kwara State. I was along to document.
As we waited for others’ flights to land, the spectacle was palpable, and the spectacle was us. A group of mostly Caucasian Americans, even in an international airport, was obviously quite the sight. Lots of stares and polite head nods, but some people even asked for a photo. You know, to prove they saw a white man.
Again, very different.
It took a while for the 17-person team to assemble completely, but we eventually corralled everyone. “Herding cats,” would be the saying throughout the next two weeks.
We gathered our things, five 6-foot-tall luggage carts full, and started outside to our vans. It was dark by this point. Guards, armed with AK-47s and other rifles, met us at the door of the airport and escorted us; they were agitated immediately. By the time we made it to the vans they were yelling back and forth at each other, pointing at us and then back to the vans.
Technically, English is the national language of Nigeria, due to that whole British colonization thing, but they were speaking Yoruba, another widely accepted language. Nigerians can be bombastic and demonstrative, even in normal conversation, but this was the first exchange of this nature I had witnessed. So to me, things were tense.
We eventually got everything loaded and were on our way to our hotel in Lagos. But we kept stopping. Pulling over for five, 10 minutes at a time to seemingly just let the guards walk the circumference of the cars, rifles at the ready.
Our drivers were … impressive. Weaving in and out of lanes, pulling out in front of oncoming traffic, forcing it to stop. The flow of traffic was more like a river, and besides the endless honking and hand motions, none of our new local comrades seemed bothered by it.
We dealt with a lot of that the next day during our six hour drive to Ilorin. The roads heading out of Lagos, a sprawling, modern, yet poverty-stricken, city, were bad. For more than half the journey, we were on dirt. Overturned 18-wheelers, mostly tankers, stripped of their wheels and other important pieces, dotted the sides of the roads, abandoned forever.
This was also different.
The small villages we passed were stunning. Beautiful, brightly colored cloth hung outside brown and grey dirt, tin roofed houses. Men, women and children hung around outside as well, going about their daily activities. Playing with each other, washing clothes, fetching water, some just sitting around watching it all. The poverty was nearly all I could see to begin with, but they were blind to it.
This was different.
When we arrived in Ilorin, we were told that the local government had changed our accommodations to somewhere they felt we would be more safe. Our driver pulled up to the Kwara Hotel, through the guarded gates, and as we are coming to a stop a large group of locals in traditional dress came flooding out of doors of the hotel and began singing and dancing. There was a television crew and a drum circle.
This was all very exciting, but different too.
The next two weeks were, for lack of a better cliche, a blur. We went to the hospital every day at 7 a.m. and left at 7 p.m. After it was all said and done, our small team of 17, with only two surgeons (and the help), operated on 72 patients, many of them children.
In most cases having a cleft lip or cleft palate alone, isn’t enough to kill you, but in places like Nigeria, being different is. Many of the mothers we talked to had been banished from their villages because of their child’s deformity. Some told by friends and family their child was a curse, a demon. Some even had other children taken from them and murdered.
All this because they are different.
Cleft lip and palate surgeries are not extensive. In many respects they are simple, quick and effective, if done right. But these people simply don’t have access to them. With each operation over those two weeks a life was literally changed. For the babies who won’t remember us, they will never have to deal with the social stigma that comes along with a lip deformity or a speech problem. For the older ones, they get a fresh start, a new confidence.
Despite everything that was different about the culture, the people and the landscape in Nigeria, I knew when I was leaving that it was all the same.
We are all the same.
In many ways, I am still digesting everything I experienced in Nigeria, and maybe I always will be. But one thing I am sure of: I saw hope, and I am determined to see it again.