Adjoa Survived to Smile

She spent 45 years shackled by her cleft. Now, she feels she can do anything

Adjoa smiling and holding a photo of herself before cleft surgery

Adjoa Nduku lives in a small village in Togo. She was born with a cleft and was only able to have it treated last year, when she was 45. We asked her to tell us about her life and knew we needed to share her responses with you. This is the radical difference cleft care can make, even to an adult, and it’s the fresh start Smile Train donors make possible around the world each day.

What are your earliest childhood memories? What was life like for you as a child?

Life as a child was really hard for me and my mother. It was hard for my mother because she had difficulty getting pregnant and we didn’t have a lot of money. She also had difficulties feeding me because my cleft made it almost impossible for her to nurse me. She would put the porridge in her mouth and find a way to put the food into my mouth.

Another difficulty was the fact that people would mock, laugh, and point fingers at me. That was the kind of childhood I had.

What else do you remember about your childhood?

If I hit my head while I was playing with my friends, my teeth would hurt, and I would have headaches as well. Also, because of the tooth pain, I couldn’t eat properly. When I ate, I had to be careful not to suffocate because I could get food into my lungs through my cleft. So, eating was a very delicate process for me.

What was your relationship with your parents?

My mother and my father accepted me for who I was. I felt loved. However, no member of my extended family liked or likes me; none of them wanted me.

Why do you think your extended family acted that way? What are their beliefs about clefts?

They did not like me because I looked different. But they also believed that my mother must have been cursed and possessed by a demon or a voodoo spirit, that she did something against the gods, and that was the reason I was born this way.

Adjoa before cleft surgery
Adjoa before cleft surgery

Did anyone look for ways to treat your cleft?

We knew of the possibility of cleft surgery, but my father refused because he accepted that I was born this way and he did not want to run the risk of someone making an already bad situation worse. So, every attempt to convince him to let me have the surgery was futile.

When I came of age and I found out that there was a solution to my problem, I asked him to let me do the surgery on many occasions, but he kept saying no. He died three years ago. If he were alive today, I would have done the surgery with or without his consent. My father was the main obstacle to me having the surgery.

Adjoa tending a fire before cooking
Adjoa preparing a fire for cooking

Are you married?

I was married but I am now divorced.

How was the experience of getting married as a young woman with a cleft?

There was no courtship per se. The man took advantage of my naivete and manipulated me into being with him and I got pregnant for him. He did not pay a dowry.

It must have been challenging to raise the children. How did you manage to do it?

When we got married, I knew he didn’t love me, and he had made it very clear that he didn’t. And because he didn’t love me, he wouldn’t take care of the children like a father should. He would fight with my mother because my mother would do anything to take care of the children. He would provide food for them and that was all.

But for me, he would do nothing. He wouldn’t buy anything or do anything for me when I needed him to. I had to find a way to help the children myself and it affected them a lot.

Can you tell us how you finally got your surgery?

I was here when Mr. Fo, who works as a nurse at Aneho Hospital, came to my community to educate people on clefts. Other villagers directed him to my ex-husband, who sent him to me. (We do not live in the same house as we are no longer together, but we are still in the same neighborhood.) Mr. Fo asked me if I would be willing to go for the surgery and I accepted and he drove me on his bike to the hospital that same day.

How do you remember the day of the surgery? What happened at the hospital?

Because of the circumstances under which we went to the hospital, I did not take along much in terms of resources or money, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to survive in terms of feeding. But when I got there, Mr. Fo gave me food and took care of me. Before the surgery I was supposed to fast, and so I fasted for a while, and 48 hours after the surgery, when I felt better, he took me home. So, less than a week after meeting Mr. Fo, everything was done.

Close-up of Adjoa smiling after cleft surgery
A smile 45 years in the making

How did you feel when you looked into the mirror for the first time after the surgery?

I was so happy; I was filled with joy! I was really excited.

How is life after cleft surgery?

I am a very happy person. Nobody stares at me anymore. I can go about without people pointing fingers at me, without people staring, and without being noticed like before. That is what I enjoy the most in my life.

Do you think you have a possibility of finding a second chance at love?

My ex-husband is coming around to me and showing some interest now; he comes more often to my house just to say hi and pay a visit. I will take him back as my husband if he really wants to come back; however, I will not beg him to come back. I am not really interested in any other person.

Adjoa carrying a large bowl on her shoulder after her life-changing cleft surgery
Adjoa carrying a large bowl on her shoulder after her life-changing cleft surgery

In the same way, do you have any new hopes for your future, maybe something that wasn’t possible before?

There is nothing in particular that I can think of, but just the feeling of knowing that I can do anything is great. Whatever I want to do, wherever I want to go, I know I can do it. Anything is possible today.

If you met a young girl with a cleft, what advice would you give her? What would you tell her?

I would encourage her to get the surgery as soon as possible and not to live with it because I wouldn’t want anyone to live the kind of life I lived. I would share with her my testimony so that she knows that there is a solution and that she doesn’t have to live with a cleft for long. She should get help early.

What is your message to Smile Train’s donors, who sponsored your surgery?

I want to bless them that whatever they spent to help people like me will come back to them double. That their businesses will continue to grow, that they will live long, and they will be full of life. I also bless the personnel here at the hospital that all their surgeries will be successful without any complications.

I am grateful.

You can change a life today.