Birth Deformities in Africa: a Tale of Superstition and Ignorance

A birth deformity is a deformity that is present in a child at birth. In other words, a child is born with it. There are thousands of birth deformities. Some of them are visible while others are not. But something is common to all birth deformities: they affect the child’s life in one way or the other.

Some birth deformities are not compatible with life. In other words, the child can’t survive. Depending on the severity of the deformity, the child may die few hours or days after birth. Some others can survive a few months or years but they eventually have a shortened life span. Some of these birth deformities that are incompatible with life are treatable while others are not readily treatable. On the other hand, some other birth deformities are fairly compatible with life. In other words, the child can survive and live a near-normal life. If the deformity is hidden, the child won’t suffer from a social stigma but if it’s in the open, then the problems are enormous.

Birth deformities like craniofacial defects are a worldwide phenomenon

Birth deformities like craniofacial defects are a worldwide phenomenon. A baby with a craniofacial defect before and after surgery.

Examples of such birth defects which are fairly compatible with life but are visible are craniofacial clefts. Craniofacial clefts are birth deformities that are characterized by openings in different parts of the face and mouth. Such defects affect feeding, speech, hearing, and general esthetics of the face. How easily can you hide your face? They also affect the growth of the face and the teeth.

A child may survive the early stages of life but as they grow up, the grotesque appearance renders them social rejects. They’re stigmatized in ways that can not be quantified. Such individuals never complete their education, never successfully run a business, and can hardly enjoy any relationships. Even their parents and loved ones abandon them totally. For the faint-hearted, that’s an enough reason to commit suicide.

But this is even based on the assumption that they grow up to that stage. The problems start from the very minute the baby is born. The parents never display such children to the public. Even if they summon the courage to do a christening ceremony for the child, they do it low key covering the baby’s face with a big shawl, and preventing anybody else from carrying the baby.

My work with such children over the years has shown that the mother always bears the brunt. The husband’s family puts the blame on her. They believe she might have been involved in witchcraft or sexual infidelity for her to have given birth to such a baby. It’s her fault and she’ll soon be chased out of her husband’s house for producing an evil child. Or it’s because while she was pregnant of the child, she walked in the sun or late at night — spirits are always roaming around at such times and they must have entered her tummy while she was walking at the wrong hours.

When they come to the hospital, we hardly find the fathers accompanying the mothers. It’s the mothers alone that come with their deformed babies. The women are mostly depressed and downcast from the weight of the stigma they have suffered from friends and family. Sometimes we lose track of them completely. We usually keep their phone numbers to contact them with pending their surgery appointments but sometimes, we just discover that the lines are no longer going through. Cases of infanticides are common. They simply connive to get rid of the baby so that their lives can start afresh.

However it’s because the parents don’t know that these birth deformities are amenable to treatment. In fact, the surgery to correct the problem can be done for children as young as 3 months old. Another problem is that they don’t know what causes them. Birth deformities are not due to spirits or infidelity. They’re due to totally natural causes.

How craniofacial clefts develop in the fetus is well known and the risk factors are well known. Basically, craniofacial clefts are caused by a combination of genetic defects and environmental factors. Environmental factors include, among others, pregnant women taking certain drugs (there’s a whole long list of drugs that have been implicated), suffering certain infections in pregnancy, and nutritional deficiencies in pregnancy. Good antenatal attendance is very vital in preventing birth deformities.

Birth deformities affecting the face are fairly common, occurring in about 1 in every 1,000 births in Africa. Globally, this amounts to millions of children being born with these birth deformities per annum. However, because such children are commonly born to poor parents, a number of non-profit NGO’s have risen to sponsor their treatment. One of such organizations is Smile Train.

Smile Train is an American charity organization that pays for the treatment of these birth deformities worldwide. They take donations from all good-hearted citizens of the world and then spend the funds on the treatment of craniofacial defects. They work through thousands of surgeons operating in local hospitals worldwide. In Nigeria for instance, Smile Train sponsors these free treatments in almost all tertiary health facilities in the country. There’s a high chance that as you’re reading this article, there’s a hospital offering Smile Train services pro bono close by. So if you happen to know a baby that looks like the one above, contact the nearest hospital for help. The hospital treats the child and gets paid by Smile Train. Click here to read more about Smile Train.

I work in one of such hospitals that render such services. But the story of one particular boy stood out. I met him in our clinic few weeks ago. He was 17 years old. What?! How can you be 17 and still be carrying this kind of thing around? He dropped out of school because of this. He entered a vocational training but couldn’t complete it because of this. Everybody had laughed at him and he was a subject of many jokes because of this.

I and my friend the first day he attended our clinic

I and my friend the first day he attended our clinic

The parents were nowhere to be found. So how did he come to us? A kindhearted woman who sees him in the neighborhood heard about our hospital and brought him. The woman has been seeing him roaming the streets for so long without ever seeing his parents. She took it upon herself to bring him down to us. This surgery should’ve been down since he was 3 months old!

I and my friend in the theatre shortly before the surgery

I and my friend in the operating room shortly before the surgery

In the end, the surgery was done at no cost to the woman and he can now start a life. At least. He still needs further surgeries and further treatments which are all covered by Smile Train funds. Now he feels like he’s in another world. He looked himself in the mirror and he’s someone he had never seen since he was born! His friends and acquaintances were amazed at the miracle that has happened to him! They had thought he was demon-possessed but without attending a miracle camp for deliverance or exorcism, he had been healed by the surgeons. He wasn’t prayed for. He was simply operated upon.

I and my friend 2 weeks after the surgery

I and my friend 2 weeks after the surgery

And you’re here telling me why we shouldn’t eradicate superstitious belief? This boy has suffered this for so long because some people somewhere believed that spirits could cause physical illness. If you also believe that sin or demons can cause diseases, you’re one of those I’m talking to. All of you who say certain problems are spiritual, listen up. There ain’t such a thing! You can say you believe in demons and spirits but claim to be enlightened enough to take things like this to the hospital but that’s a contradiction. There’s no way you can believe that some problems are spiritual and at the same time believe that we should find human solutions to all human problems. This is why we need to drop such magical thinking if we’re to progress as a society.

Thank you for reading.

N. B.
1. I got his permission before using his pictures and writing this story.
2. This was never a confidential issue as the birth deformity and the successful surgery could never have been kept secret.

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