After working in banking and social-sector management for more than 16 years, Nkeiruka (NK) Obi decided to use her considerable skill set to help children and joined Smile Train as the Program Director for West and Central Africa in 2011.
West Africa is a vast region with diverse cultures and countries, hundreds of spoken languages, civil wars, terrorist activities, harsh cleft stigma, a shortage of trained surgeons, and a lack of local health infrastructure. After a short time on the job, NK realised that the status quo wouldn’t help her reach the estimated 12,000+ children born with clefts in West Africa each year, a number compounded by the many adults who had waited years for cleft surgery. She needed to be strategic.
NK’s first move was simple math. To reach more children, she and her staff would need to expand, forge new partnerships, and increase Smile Train’s footprint. She explained, “With no doubt, these are very difficult terrains, given the cultural differences, the costs, and the security risks, but in nearly every region we went to, we’d find local surgeons and hospitals passionate about helping children born with clefts.”
One lesson NK learned early was that gaining the trust of local leaders was the key to expansion. She’d once witnessed an international organisation providing free polio vaccinations in a completely empty tent because of a rumour that they were being used to control the local population. When the organisation went to the local leaders, convinced them that the shots would save lives, and those leaders took to the radio to give their approval, lines formed around the block. NK starts every cleft campaign by visiting local mosques, churches, and government and cultural leaders to get their buy-in.
As local partner surgeons and hospitals expanded, NK’s next move was to get them the resources and equipment they needed to improve the standard of care. NK and her team, through a grant process, helped to provide cleft instruments, anaesthesia machines, and pulse oximeters.
Another programme NK initiated in countries across West Africa was Cleft Awareness Weeks to combat the rampant superstitions and myths that act as barriers to children with clefts receiving care and that, worse, can be life-threatening. “During Cleft Awareness Week, we go to religious organisations, car parks, hospitals, and schools and educate people about cleft — we share that it isn’t a bad omen, but rather a congenital birth difference treatable by surgery lasting as little as 45 minutes.”
As NK and her team spent more time with cleft awareness campaigns, they recognised that women often suffered the “blame” for the birth of a child with a cleft and would often have to raise children alone or otherwise be marginalised. NK started the First Lady’s Initiative to involve the wives of governors, presidents, and community leaders as ambassadors to share at every opportunity that women are not the cause of a cleft birth and that Smile Train-supported cleft surgery is available to those who need it.
After nearly 10 years of NK’s traversing all of West Africa, creating partnerships and a better understanding of cleft, Smile Train’s cleft-surgery numbers have improved by 500% under her leadership, and she has helped to start essential comprehensive cleft care programmes in several countries. True to form, she attributes the success to others: “Our increased impact is mostly due to my skilled team, our dedicated local medical partners, hospital management, and local leaders who all want the same thing as I do — to change children’s lives forever. And a special thanks to all of Smile Train’s supporters who allow us to do that.”
If you have a passion for bringing forever smiles to children’s faces, just like NK, make a donation today.
NK sends a very special thanks to her family. Their love and understanding make the long hours and time away possible.