When Siyabonga was handed to his mother shortly after his birth she admits to being scared by his appearance. Siyabonga was born with a cleft lip and Athalia had never seen anything like it before.

Fortunately the doctors and nurses were able to explain that the condition was correctable and that there would actually be an Operation Smile mission taking place at the very same hospital later in the year.

Athalia contacted Operation Smile South Africa (OSSA) and she advised to attend the mission held in Mbombela in September 2015. In the interim she returned home with her baby boy and faced a community confused and afraid. “My community asked why he looked this way, they didn’t understand. They were scared and wanted to know how he would end up in life,” remembers Athalia.

Apart from the challenge presented by the community’s ignorance of cleft lip and palate Athalia’s greatest barrier to care was the issue of transport and cost. Based around 90 minutes from the nearest town Athalia and Siyabonga live off the beaten track and so finding transport has proved problematic.

OSSA assisted the two in finding their way to the mission and Athalia admits a sense of relief upon arriving and seeing more children with the same condition as Siyabonga. “I was surprised, I thought it was only Siyabonga but it isn’t,” says Athalia.

Siyabonga was selected for surgery and although his mother was undeniably nervous she remained confident that all would go well. When she was reunited with Siyabonga, she could not believe her eyes. “I was so happy.”

Six months later during a post-operative trip Athalia is still beaming with joy at the change in Siyabonga. He charges around the garden adjacent to their home and while Athalia says that he is by nature a shy child that since attending nursery school he has definitely come out of his shell.

When Athalia considers the confusion that her neighbours expressed after seeing the results of the surgery, “they thought his cleft had been fixed with flesh from his leg,” she confirms that educating communities about cleft lip and/or palate is key.

For now though all she wants is for Siyabonga to be happy because she smiles, “the weight has been lifted.”


“Every child that has a facial deformity is our responsibility. If we don’t take care of that child, there’s no guarantee that anyone else will.”

- Kathy Magee, Operation Smile Co-founder and President