Talent, Mercy, Mandi

He passed so much more than his cleft onto his youngest daughters

Mercy, Talent, and Mandigaisa inside their home

Mandigaisa was born in a remote village; he is one of many children, but the only one with a cleft. He recalls that his mother was “disappointed” in how he was born, but that the family was always there for her with comfort and encouragement. They thought Mandi might be some kind of prophet.

But outside the family compound, he was treated like a curse. His classmates refused to sit next to him, and threats of violence followed him everywhere. He felt embarrassed to be in public, while inside, he raged at himself for having been born different.

“I kept asking myself ‘Why? Why?’”

Then, in first grade, he had an epiphany: He was better at school than almost everyone else. If they wouldn’t look at his face, he would make sure they couldn’t ignore the brain behind it.

He worked hard and soon outperformed his peers in exams, debates, achievements. “I was showing top results in all subjects, especially English,” he remembers. “My success in school forced them to respect me and my family. It helped me a lot to grow and gain confidence.”

With respect came understanding. The more Mandi spoke with people about his condition, the more they accepted it — and the more people accepted him, the more his self-confidence grew.

The experience taught him a lesson he would never forget: Dignity is a state of mind. It is something you hold inside you that no one and nothing can ever take away.

Years later, when it came time to look for a job, he saw to it that he would be considered only according to merit. It is illegal in Zimbabwe to discriminate based on physical condition, so he searched for work in the one field where he knew the law would be enforced: civil service. Before long, he was proudly manning a counter downtown as a clerk-cashier in the City of Harare’s finance department.

Around this time, he met a woman at a market who saw only who he was on the inside. Her name was Iscah. When he asked her to marry him, she said yes without hesitation.

Mandigaisa just before cleft surgery
Mandi at age 49

Now with a wife and a job, Mandi was ready to start a family.

Mercy Smiles on the Family

Their first child was a boy. He had a cleft and, tragically, passed away shortly after birth. “We couldn't name him. There was no time for that,” Mandi sighed. “The doctor explained everything to me and comforted me, but the family of my wife, they were shocked. They could not accept that. They didn't speak of him as a human being.”

Mandi thought his son’s too-brief life meant that all his other children would have clefts. Still, the couple never doubted that they should try again. They had three more children, none of whom had a cleft.

Then they had a fourth who did. She had trouble feeding, but the hospital staff was there to help from her first breaths and felt confident that she would survive. Looking down at the new life sleeping in his arms, Mandi knew just what to name her: Mercy.

Mercy as a baby, before cleft surgery
Mercy before cleft surgery

Mercy led them to Smile Train. Nine months later, she had her new smile, thanks to Smile Train’s generous donors around the world.

Mercy today, age 14
Mercy today, age 14

The whole family was in awe that such a thing was possible; Mandi had never even considered that there might be a treatment for clefts before this, but he assumed he was now too old to have the surgery himself. He never even asked.

Talent, Passion, and Tragedy

Seven years later, Mandi and Iscah had another daughter, also with a cleft. From his first look at her, Mandi knew exactly what her name should be: Talent.

In the time since Mercy’s surgery, Smile Train had begun partnering with a local cleft team headed by Dr. Wayne Manana. One of his country’s most esteemed surgeons, Dr. Manana is passionate about helping families from villages like Mandi’s because he grew up in one himself. Mandi trusted him immediately.

The day of Talent’s first surgery, Mercy went into the OR to watch her sister be healed. Talent appreciated the support, but Mandi insists she hardly needed it. “She showed great courage,” he said. “She didn’t cry at any point. She had no problem with the surgery and was only confident.”

Talent’s second surgery was scheduled for February 25, 2023. On February 5, Iscah suddenly passed away.

Mandi was now left to raise five children alone while working full-time. But even in his fresh shock and anguish, it never occurred to him to delay Talent’s surgery.

Talent today, age 7
Talent today, age 7

Mandi’s Gift

Dr. Manana had been encouraging Mandi to get surgery for himself since they met, but his focus had been solely on Talent. Now, with his girls taken care of and his wife gone, Mandi understood he had a decision to make. He was 49 years old. He likely wasn’t going to have any more children.

Mandi holding a picture of himself before surgery
Today, everyone can see the proud smile Mandi has always worn on the inside

It was time for the world to finally see the proud smile he has always worn on the inside.

“I felt at ease with the decision. When I saw myself for the first time after the procedure, I was so happy. I knew the results would be great and they were, indeed.”

Mandigaisa standing in a suit in front of his house with his arms crossed proudly
Mandi in front of his house

Everyone felt his new look suited him: relatives, neighbors, even people downtown. “As a cashier, I work at the front office with all the clients that come in. Of course, the clients notice the results of the surgery. So far, they are happy and give good comments.”

Family Values

Talent is very soft-spoken, but when you ask her what she wants to be when she grows up, the response is definitive: “I want to be a nurse.”

Talent and Mercy playing pat-a-cake
Talent and Mercy playing pat-a-cake

One year after her surgery and her mother’s death, Mandi couldn’t be prouder of his baby. “She is very smart, calm, and confident,” he beamed. “Her mother would say she is very upright and understanding.”

It is clear that Mandi has instilled his scrappy, indefatigable spirit into all of his children. No matter what challenges lie ahead, this family will rise to meet them with trademark dignity, courage, and kindness.

Mandi, Mercy, and Talent sharing a smile together
One happy family

”I wish to thank Smile Train’s donors for helping disadvantaged people. When somebody puts their resources into… the nearby hospital and sponsors the care, this is something we appreciate. I thank you for changing our lives and for all the work you do.”

- Mandigaisa

This Father’s Day, make a special gift in honor of Mandi and other heroic cleft dads.