Domingos has an indomitable spirit with a physique to match: calloused hands, muscled arms and shoulders that look like they could carry the weight of the world.
In a sense, they have. Domingos carried the weight of living with an untreated cleft lip for 48 years.
Making his way to the Operation Smile medical mission site in Quelimane, Mozambique, Domingos didn’t know what to expect. He never knew that surgery could repair his cleft, so all he had was a faint hope that his neighbours and village headman were correct, and that a poster he quickly glimpsed could be the start of a new life.
“My neighbours and headman came to me a month ago and told me about this opportunity. I thought to myself, ‘Is this actually possible?’” Domingos said.
Growing up in a small rural community in Mozambique’s Zambesia province, Domingos said that he always felt lost and alone as the only person he or his family knew that was born with a cleft lip. As he spoke about being bullied and judged because of his difference, his eyes reflected the pain that he’s endured over the years.
But Domingos proved to be resilient despite being so cruelly mistreated. The fact that he survived well into adulthood defies incredible odds: Nine out of 10 children who never receive treatment for their cleft conditions die before their 20th birthdays.
Though the social stigma of cleft is severe in Mozambique, Domingos surrounded himself with people who loved and accepted him. He married his wife, and together they raised a son who’s now 20 years old and helps him farm a small piece of land.
Unfortunately, Domingos’ wife passed away several years ago. When he arrived to the mission, he told the volunteers that he had no other family members besides his son.
While his son was unable to miss work to attend the mission, Domingos said that he was sure that his son would be waiting anxiously for updates.
As Domingo’s story spread around the mission’s patient village, he rapidly became well-known and admired by the other patients and family members. Still, Domingos was unsure that his cleft lip could be repaired after living with it for so many years. When a volunteer showed him the before-and-after images of a man of a similar age from Ghana who received cleft lip surgery, he exclaimed, “It’s not possible!”
After Operation Smile medical volunteers determined that Domingos was healthy enough to receive surgery, his operation was scheduled for the mission’s first day of surgery.
Sitting in the pre-operative room, Domingos looked both nervous and determined. He was welcomed into the operating room by the volunteers, including Dr. Geronimo Brilao, a Mozambican surgeon who was observing the mission. They exchange a few words in Portuguese before the course of Domingos’ live is changed over the next hour.
After the final suture was closed, Domingos looked at his new smile for the first time. The doubt he once expressed became nothing more than a memory.
“When I look in the mirror, I am very happy because something has changed,” Domingos said. “I am a strong man now.”
The day after his surgery, volunteers and staff saw Domingos sharing laughs and celebrating with people they hadn’t previously seen around the patient village. To their surprise – Domingos had said that he had no other family except for his son – it was his sister, brother and cousin.
“I have experienced this before,” said Carlos Mahalambe, an Operation Smile patient advocate in Mozambique. “I think it’s often easier for people to say they don’t have family when they are still dealing with shame, and so they try and wait to see what will happen (with their surgery).”
Domingos’ brother, Alberto, said that life was very difficult for his sibling growing up, and even when they heard that he would be attending the mission, they remained sceptical about his potential surgery. But on this day, the beaming smiles and lingering glances at Domingos’ new smile showed that they are now true believers.
“We thought there was no cure, but now we have the proof that there is a cure,” Alberto said. “The day he goes home, everyone will admire him because no one expected this. Now his life has changed, and he is different from what he once was. He is a new-born man.”
His cousin, Daniel, added: “To me, he was always a good man with good fellowship with others. And to those people who have rejected him, I hope Domingos can forgive them and carry on with his life.”
As a widower, Domingos had been reluctant to seek a new partner because of his cleft lip, but after his surgery, he said that he is thinking of a new future: “I think it might be time to start thinking about getting married again one day.
“I don’t know how to thank the team for everything they have done for me. I thank God. They must continue to do this.”