Zena’s Story: Smile Train Africa’s 100,000th Smile

Zena Smile Train Africa

Anabela and her husband Arabi live in a small community in Mozambique that looks like a tropical paradise but has extremely severe living conditions — in fact, everyone must pitch in and pool resources just to survive. Anabela and Arabi regularly provide cassava that they grow on their small farm, while their neighbours may contribute fish or vegetation gathered from the local beaches.

Beach in Mozambique

When Anabela and Arabi learned that they were going to have a child, they knew it would be difficult, but they felt better knowing that they could count on the support of their tight-knit community. These feelings only grew stronger when, the following January, they learned that their daughter, Zena, had been born with a cleft lip.

Zena extended family

Within days of Zena’s birth, Anabela learned that cleft surgery was possible at a hospital just 30 minutes away. However, Anabela never attempted the journey, because she was certain that she couldn’t afford the cost of the surgery.

So, for nearly three years, Zena lived with an untreated cleft lip.

Zena in front of house

As Zena grew older and became more self-aware, she realised that she looked different from her playmates. Anabela’s heart broke when, one day, her daughter asked, “Why do I have to have this mouth?”

Zena with friends

Thankfully, in September 2018, a community member saw a Smile Train advertisement promoting free cleft surgeries in Pemba. Anabela got in touch and was in disbelief that Smile Train would fully sponsor Zena’s cleft lip surgery in just a few days’ time.

Zena with mom on beach

On a final walk to the beach before Zena’s surgery, Anabela said, “I’m worried about the surgery because I don’t know how it will go, but we’ll go forward. I want her to live free, like all her friends.”

Zena at hospital

Upon arriving at Hospital Provincial de Pemba, the family was welcomed by veteran Smile Train partner surgeon Dr Saraiva Simao, one of the longest-serving local partner surgeons in Africa. In the waiting room, Anabela and Zena shared stories with three other families, also preparing for surgery. The mood was a mix of apprehension and hope.

Zena meets with medical team

Next, Zena was assessed by the local paediatrician, who shared that many children who come in for cleft surgery are often too malnourished to proceed with the surgery. But, thanks to Zena’s loving parents and the community contributing food and resources, Zena passed her exam and was wheeled in for her cleft surgery.

Zena having surgery

In less than an hour, Zena’s surgery was successfully completed, and she was transported to the waiting room to be reunited with her mother. Anabela was visibly relieved when she embraced Zena for the first time, saying, “She looked so different, I almost thought she wasn’t my child.” After the surgery, it was revealed that Zena was Smile Train Africa’s 100,000th smile.

Zena after surgery

Dr Simao said of the milestone, “I’m grateful and honored to be the surgeon of the 100,000th smile in Africa. I hope that sharing Zena’s story will show everyone that cleft is treatable, and that Smile Train partners are here for anyone in need.”

Zena smiles with mom

Zena and her family triumphantly returned to their community, and everyone was in awe of Zena’s smile.

Zena laughs

Sibusisiwe Yona, Smile Train’s program manager in Southern Africa, said of Zena’s being Smile Train Africa’s 100,000th smile:

Zena is a great fit, as she is so representative of so many patients we see in Africa—she has faced harsh economic challenges and was unable to access healthcare because her family did not have the resources. But Zena, her parents, and her community are also exceptional and can be used as an excellent example that children born with clefts should be treated with love, respect, and care—if a baby is born with a cleft, try to support and help the family. And when that child finally finds a local Smile Train partner and the cleft treatment they need, they can live a life like every other child—just like Zena.

If you would like to help support the next 100,000 smiles in Africa and around the world

Please make a gift today