A Girl Set Free: Justine’s Story

11 March 2018

If anyone tells Justine she can’t do something, she’ll find a way to prove them wrong. This 11-year-old has the heart of a lioness—fearless and fiery. Can’t doesn’t seem to be in her vocabulary.


Her strength sparked pride in her grandfather’s heart … but also great concern. Justine was born with bowed legs, a congenital condition that causes the leg bones to twist so that the knees are farther apart than the ankles. As time progressed, instead of getting better as her family hoped, Justine’s condition worsened. Eventually, her feet were bent backwards entirely, making it difficult for her to walk or stand for long periods of time.

But spunky Justine seemed unaware of the severity of her condition. She dreamed of one day running, jumping rope, and climbing guava trees with her friends.

“She never seemed to understand that her legs didn’t work like the other children’s,” said her grandfather. “I was afraid for her when she would try to climb trees or play. I would think, ‘If her legs get broken for good, what is she going to do?’”

Going to school was a challenge. Her grandfather had to arrange transportation for her since she couldn’t walk the four kilometers to school each day with her older siblings. On days when transportation fell through, she would spend hours painstakingly making her way to school, stopping frequently for breaks. Life seemed like an unending uphill battle for this girl with a brave spirit and boundless potential …

… Until the day they heard about Mercy Ships. They made their way to the Africa Mercy, and when they arrived, it only seemed fitting that Justine was the first patient up the gangway of the hospital ship on opening day. She had to be carried up the steps, but her smile revealed a confidence that one day soon, she would be able to walk down them by herself.


The surgery to straighten her twisted legs was only the beginning of a long recovery process. She spent weeks in casts. Sitting still was a challenge, but she patiently spent her time collecting stickers and brushing up on her drawing skills. Finally, her casts were off, and her physiotherapy began.

Hours spent in rehabilitation brought Justine closer to her goal of walking crutch-free on her newly straightened legs. Before long, she was striding like a champion—smiling widely, ready to grab the attention of anyone near her. “Watch me!” her sparkling eyes seemed to shout. She was proud of her ever-increasing mobility.

“It leaves me speechless to see her walking around like this,” said her grandfather. “It’s a miracle.”

The recovery process wasn’t simple. Complications meant that, although she was the first patient up the gangway, she was also one of the last orthopedic patients discharged. But in only five months with Mercy Ships, Justine’s legs were straight, and her bold spirit was undeterred.


This courageous girl might conquer the world someday. But, for now, it’s the little things that she can’t wait to accomplish … fetching water, helping wash clothes and clean house … things that were once impossible for her. And, when she gets older, she wants to help with the family farm, growing cassava and groundnuts.

Justine - Before and After

Justine is going home with more than just straight legs—she’s going home with a future that’s full of potential for a brave and confident girl. “There’s nothing I can’t do!” she said.

Written by Rose Talbot
Photography by Saul Loubassa-Bighonda
Edited by Karis Johnson and Nancy Predaina