Branded as witches and sorcerers, cleft lip children now see hope in Africa

Accused of witchcraft or sorcery, children with cleft lips or palates are often driven into hiding in several African countries, forced to live as outcasts unless they receive an early operation.

In the Suka clinic in the Burkina Faso capital Ouagadougou, a volunteer recounts the story of one young mother made to flee her village after giving birth to a "cursed child".

"She was forced to hide in the bush, like an animal, and live off what she found there," he said. "A traveller ran into her, took pity and brought her to Ouagadougou."

Many parents hide such children -- fearing they will be taunted or made into pariahs -- due to the lack of available medical care.

"When he was born I was so sad that I could no longer eat," said Habibatou Saaba, whose 18-month-old son Zidan was born with a cleft lip.

But Zidan has been given a second chance by the doctors at the Suka clinic, who are funded by Canadian charity Mission Sourires d'Afrique (Smiles of Africa).

His entire future is at stake, said Saaba as she paced the corridor of the clinic, waiting for the operation to finish. She said she wants him to be a nurse when he grows up, like the staff at the clinic.

"Until today she has been hiding her son," said her sister-in-law, who was also at the clinic. "I asked her why she would do that and she said she had been asked too many questions. Grown-ups would just stare at him."

In the West, children with the condition generally receive an operation within three months of being born, but specialised care of this nature remains rare across Africa, even though the operation costs only $250 (180 euros).

- 'So much stigma' -

The clinic waiting room is a tense place, with long lines of deformed children mostly silent as they wait for their operation.

"Most families think they are cursed," said Loic Koffi, a social assistant at the clinic.

In rural areas, these infants are often treated as witches or sorcerers. The pressure on parents often leads to divorces or the banishment of the family from the village, said Koffi.

"This deformity ... causes so much stigma," said Nkeiruka Obi, from another charity, New York-based Smile Train.

"And to think that the problem can be fixed in 45 minutes at a cost of $250, and forever change the life of a child," said Obi, who runs the charity's western Africa programme.

Smile Train says that since its foundation in 1999 it has carried out nearly one million procedures -- "that?s roughly 340 surgeries every day and 125,000 every year".

The charity, which partners with Mission Sourires d'Afrique, pays doctors $400 dollars per surgery. It also helps train local surgeons.

In Ouagadougou, two medical teams take turns in the operating theatre.

"It's an operation that is not easy to do well," Docteur Jean-Martin Laberge explains as he reconstructs the mouth of six-year-old Safiatou. "But the tissue is there, so all we need is put it in place."

"Cupid's bow is perfect," he adds once the operation is finished, referring to the double curve of her upper lip.

At his side, his wife Louise, also a surgeon, is giving tips to a trainee from Niger.

Safiatou, like the 65 other children whose lives Laberge has improved, has been transformed from the disfigured little girl she was less than an hour before.

"Yesterday a mother told us she would return to her village with her daughter in their Sunday best and show her off," said a beaming Laberge.