Zenani carries himself with a maturity beyond his 19 years. Born with a cleft lip, he received his first surgery as a 5-year-old, but has still faced much bullying and misunderstanding since. However, a chance encounter at work would see him attend the Operation Smile medical mission held in Mbombela from 27 October through 3 October.
“I work as a clothing and general merchandiser at Woolworths here in Mbombela. About a month ago I was at work when a lady came up to and spoke with me after noticing my cleft and asked if I knew that Operation Smile was coming to town and said that I should attend the mission,” explains Zenani.
The lady who spoke with Zeenani was Operation Smile volunteer Annelie Bornman. Bornman is a speech therapist at Rob Ferreira Hospital in Mbombela.
“Working with Operation Smile has made me especially aware of potential patients and so when I saw Zenani I Immediately approached him.” Bornman explained. “I believe it’s important to remind people that we can help them no matter their age and we are not just limited to babies and small children.”
For Zenani’s mother Belinda, a visit to the hospital the day before Zenani’s surgery brings back many memories.
“When I had Zenani in 1997, everybody came to see him. He was in this incubator because he was born premature and every day I would find the incubator covered in fingerprints,” Belinda says “The nurses were called in and told, ‘You have learned about cleft lip but never seen one -- here is this child.’ So I felt so alone.”
Belinda believes herself to be fortunate, though, as she had read about cleft lip a few months before the birth of her son. After Zenani was born, she was able to attend counselling, which helped her cope.
Although Zenani received his surgery at a very young age, he did not receive the necessary follow-up surgery required. He faced some very hurtful mockery and unwanted attention. “In high school people used to tease me and call all me names,” Zeenani said.
In an effort to protect her son from ridicule, Belinda enrolled him in another high school. The decision didn’t improve Zenani’s situation. In fact, he faced even more mistreatment from his new classmates.
“I had to speak to him and tell him people will always talk. ‘You are too beautiful,’ they complain, ‘You are too ugly,’ they complain, ‘You are moderate,’ they complain. I said, ‘So the fact they are talking about you means you are making waves, and I think you can live with that.’ And so he gained this confidence,” Belinda said.
Prior to attending the mission, Zenani had never seen another child with a cleft condition and he admits that this sense of isolation led him to ask why he was born with a cleft lip.
“I used to blame myself, blame my mother, and blame God. I would ask why am I not like other children,” Zenani said.
The well-spoken and charismatic young man arrived at the Operation Smile medical mission as a patient, but very soon became absorbed by the volunteers, in particular by the student program volunteer team.
“Zenani connected almost immediately with the students,” said Adva Brivik Prins, program coordinator, students and chapters. ”His help and insights were invaluable to the mission as a whole and to our project specifically.”
For Zeenani, the experience of working with Operation Smile, its patients and volunteers has been profoundly moving and he already has plans to take this journey further.
“I definitely see myself as an ambassador,” Zeenani said.
Six months later Zenani cannot stop talking about how much his life has changed since surgery. “It has been amazing since surgery, my face is so different and I can only say thank you to Operation Smile. They are such an asset,” says Zenani.
Zenani explains that while his friends were initially shocked by the changes that they embraced the ‘new look’ and were equally happy for him.
Since receiving his surgery Zenani has found himself becoming even more confident and is now employed at H&M as he pursues his passion for fashion. While so much has changed for this young man he continues to remain grounded and thankful for the help he received and keen to give back.
“I am so thankful to Operation Smile and Annelie. She is a hero and inspires me. I want to become a volunteer with Op Smile and help other children like me.”