A Future as Bright as her Smile
The first thing Mercy Ships volunteer Daniela Calle-Bueno noticed about Kadidja was the way the little girl’s nose scrunched up when she smiled. She was a bit shy, holding her mother’s hand and frequently looking up at her for reassurance. But even in this new and intimidating environment, the life inside 4-year-old Kadidja was bursting forth.
“She’s just a hoot! She loves to play and dance and sing,” said Daniela. “I could tell from the beginning that she was full of personality.”
Kadidja lived her young life with an undeniable joy and radiance. But while her personality has always been bright, her future was uncertain from the moment she was born with a cleft lip and palate. If left untreated, the condition would threaten her standing in society, and how others saw her, for the rest of her life.
The Shame of Isolation
Kadidja’s mother, Ramata, tried to get help for her daughter’s condition as soon as she was born.
The doctor who delivered Kadidja told Ramata about Mercy Ships, and the floating hospitals that offer free surgeries and medical training.
Ramata traveled with Kadidja, then just a year old, to the port city of Dakar. But she was too late. The Africa Mercy® had been forced to leave Senegal due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Although it was a disappointment, I understood why the ship left,” Ramata said. “The ship was here to help people, and to help people, the environment needs to be safe.”
Ramata took her daughter home. As Kadidja grew, so did Ramata’s pain. She knew her child was not going to fit easily into the community.
“Since she was born, I refused to take her into the village, because the other children would look at her and try to touch her nose and lips,” Ramata later said.
Kadidja’s cousin, Maimouna, said even at her young age, the little girl was aware of the attention.
“She was ashamed to go out because she saw that she was not like the other children,” Maimouna said.
After years of hiding, hope reemerged. Ramata got word that Mercy Ships would be returning to Dakar.
A Hope Realized
When the Africa Mercy arrived in 2022, Ramata once again took Kadidja, now 4 years old, to the port. There, she received the news she’d longed for: Kadidja was cleared for surgery.
Volunteer pre-op nurse Daniela Calle-Bueno met the mother and daughter the first day they arrived.
As she walked them through the process of preparing for surgery, Daniela saw Kadidja’s joyful personality shine.
“She was so much fun,” Daniela said.
One day, she brought a music speaker down to the pre-op tent. Kadidja fell in love.
“I gave it to her, and she just loved it and she wouldn’t let go,” Daniela remembered. “She was just dancing all around.”
“It’s beautiful to see her be so open and dance and sing, and act like nothing was wrong,” she said. “Just like a fun-loving little kid.”
While Kadidja was resilient, Daniela knew her condition would weigh more heavily with each passing year.
It would likely impact her ability to go to school, and later, to get married and have a family.
“It just affects their social life in a big way to be different,” Daniela said. “To be othered.”
Despite the worry she bore over her daughter’s future, Ramata was comforted by the kindness she encountered on the ship.
“Since I left my village and came to the ship, it felt like I have been in my own home,” she said. “I was so happy to be there because everyone loved my daughter.”
A week after Kadidja’s surgery on the Africa Mercy, she looked into a mirror and saw her new smile for the first time.
In that moment, it was not just a 4-year-old girl who’d been transformed. It was her mother, too.
“I am so happy,” Ramata said. “She looks so beautiful. When we go back to our village, everyone will treat her like a normal person. She can interact with other children again and she can go to school.”
Daniela had met many thankful parents. But Ramata’s gratitude was bottomless.
“She couldn’t stop saying thank you. She would say it every time she had the chance. Every time she saw any of us.”
Daniela believes Ramata’s gratitude welled up from a deep knowledge of what her daughter’s future might have looked like without the surgery.
“To have that weight lifted off of her, I think that was such a gift,” Daniela said.
Ramata and her family weren’t the only ones who received a new beginning.
When the Africa Mercy departed Senegal in 2020, Daniela was on board. She felt the pain of the separation, and of all the patients’ dashed hopes. So when she got the chance to see Kadidja receive healing after those years of waiting, it felt like a gift.
She remembers clearly the day Kadidja and Ramata left to go home. Kadidja was wearing her best dress.
“Her mom was just so happy, and Kadidja was in the best mood that day,” Daniela said. “She was running around the dock giving everybody huge hugs.”
The mother and daughter left the dock to go home, feeling both sorrow and anticipation.
“The people on board cared for both my daughter and me,” Ramata said. “I felt so lucky and joyful to be here, I did not want to leave.”
However, the joy that awaited them at home outweighed the sadness at leaving their new friends.
“Now she will have the courage to play with other children,” said Ramata.
Now, finally, Kadidja’s future would match the brightness she held inside.