“I would like to become a nurse so that I can take care of children and adults who are sick.” she replies, her speech clear and confident. Ramata’s new hopes for the future and the ability to express herself is thanks to the team of volunteers at Operation Smile Ghana and their mobile speech therapy clinic.

Ramata’s a local celebrity here in the eastern region of Ghana. Photos of her transformation after cleft surgery adorn the side of the specially adapted bus. A bus which brings vital follow-up care to patients in remote areas. Patients who might otherwise have gone without.

Ramata’s happiness is infectious. She’s here today for another speech therapy session with the mobile clinic team. They’ve been working with her for three years. There’s even a film crew here today filming her session to raise awareness. It takes a while to get things set up, but Ramata takes it all in her stride, waiting patiently in the sunshine with her mum Mariana.

Ramata’s journey so far

Things haven’t always been this bright for the family. When Ramata was born, people told Mariana to dump her baby daughter in the river or sea. Such was the strength of the stigma in their community about cleft conditions. Thankfully, Mariana’s love was unconditional. Even in those early days, she vowed never to give up hope of finding a solution for Ramata:

“I hold hope in my hands. Right here in my hands. And I will never give up on her, because love holds hope. Hope for my baby to grow and be strong and be happy.” 

Ramata and her mother Mariana before her cleft surgery in 2015
Photo: Margherita Mirabelle

Mariana worked tirelessly to raise enough money to take Ramata to a hospital in Cape Coast to find her the medical help she desperately needed. They made the journey together five times, but each time returned heartbroken, because the doctors found Ramata to be too ill for surgery.

Like many children with untreated cleft conditions, Ramata had difficulties feeding because of her cleft palate, which meant she’d struggled to get the vital nutrients needed to grow healthy and strong. Another concern for mum Mariana was how she could afford to pay for Ramata’s surgery if she did get well enough.

But hope prevailed. And in 2015, Mariana met a lady who came to her village to raise awareness about Operation Smile. She told Mariana that the charity could provide surgery for children like Ramata. Mariana was thrilled – she eagerly took down the phone number and later called the Operation Smile Ghana office to find out more. She spoke to Patient Coordinator Clement, who told her the surgery was completely free. Mariana didn’t believe him at first. He also told her that Operation Smile would provide a bus to transport all the families to the surgical programme.

Ramata after her cleft surgery.
Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

Surgery just in time

Surgery to repair Ramata’s cleft lip couldn’t have come sooner. She was now four and loved going to school, but she’d started to notice and experience the social isolation and bullying that comes with untreated cleft conditions. She would often come home crying after school and fought with her classmates when they were mean to her. Mariana had also faced stigma and cruelty too, even from members of her own family.

Ramata’s surgery resolved the issues she faced with looking ‘different’ to the other children. And for Mariana it meant that she could now go out with her daughter in public without facing ridicule. She said, “My life has changed because now I can go anywhere with my daughter and nobody laughs at us.”

New friendships and fun mean so much

Being understood by those around us, without having to repeat ourselves is something many of us take for granted. Mariana has seen a huge difference in her daughter’s speech – and her happiness at school – during Ramata’s time with the speech therapy team:

“At school the children used to tease and laugh at her. But since starting the speech therapy programme her sounds have improved and they no longer tease her. Our lives have changed greatly since Operation Smile has helped us and we want to thank them for changing the lives of us and our family.” Mariana says.

Ramata and Mariana on board the mobile speech clinic.
Photo: Lorenzo Monacelli.

During today’s session, Ramata talks about her best friend Sandra, a friendship that wouldn’t have been able to blossom without Ramata’s surgery and speech therapy. Kwaku Bekoe Obuobisah, Ghana’s Speech Programme Coordinator asks Ramata, “What do you and your best friend at school do?”

“We play together and have fun.” Ramata replies.

There’s no doubt that both Ramata’s life and Mariana’s have been transformed over the last few years. And, as Ramata runs around in the sunshine after her session, Mariana watches with the contentment of a mother who knows her child is happy at last. 

Ramata with Ghana’s Speech Programme Coordinator, Kwaku Bekoe Obuobisah, after her speech therapy session.
Photo: Lorenzo Monacelli

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