Seventeen-year-old Kondwani received surgery for his cleft lip during the medical mission in Blantyre, Malawi. (Photo by Lexi Rector)

Editor’s note: The U-Voice student storyteller program trains undergraduate student volunteers how to be reporters during medical missions. They interview patients as well as both medical and nonmedical volunteers, take their portraits, and write up their stories to share with the world.

By Lexi Rector, U-Voice student volunteer

When the village boys picked on him, Kondwani never physically fought back – but he always had a quick comeback ready.

“They always say to me that I cut myself with a razor blade” and laugh, Kondwani told me. He said that whenever anyone said anything mean to him, he always replied, “You were born without a problem, but something will come.”

This bullying made everyday life difficult; Kondwani, who was born with a cleft lip, said that even though he loves to learn, the constant cruelty and discrimination he faced at school made it a painful experience. And while his best friend, 16-year-old Joel, was always there to support him – people speak nicely to him when Joel’s around, he said – Kondwani just wanted it all to stop.

Bullying is just one of the many obstacles that 17-year-old Kondwani has had to overcome to make it here to Operation Smile’s medical mission site in Blantyre, Malawi.

“I wanted to come out of the problem where people are always targeting me,” Kondwani said. “I will be happy that the problem I once had will come to an end.”

Bullying is just one of the many obstacles that 17-year-old Kondwani has had to overcome to make it here to Operation Smile’s medical mission site in Blantyre, Malawi, where he received safe and free surgical care for his cleft condition. He had been waiting for this moment for four years, he said, since he first learned about Operation Smile from a flier a doctor brought him from a hospital in Lilongwe. To get here, he faced a lack of financial resources, limited support and great physical distance.

It took him six hours by bus to get to mission site, and although part of the drive was covered by Operation Smile, he still had to borrow MK1000 to pay for a bus to shuttle him to the Operation Smile vehicle.

At the beginning of the medical mission, he was accompanied by one of his neighbors from a nearby village who served as his guardian. His parents died when he was 8 years old; Kondwani was told they died from witchcraft. He lives with his sister, brother and grandmother. Like Joel,  Kondwani added his brother and sister are quick to stand up for him against others. Sometimes, if need be, Kondwani said his brother will protect him and by fighting the other kids.

Kondwani was very special to me and my fellow student volunteers. We were so close in age, and each day we put ourselves in his shoes as he went through the screening process alone, as he waited to see if he will receive surgery alone.

But come the big day of surgery, the student team was determined to make sure he didn’t walk back to surgery alone.

I think they made a pretty big impact because when asked what his favorite part about the mission is, he said “everything because it helps me stay happy.”

Lexi is a longtime Operation Smile student volunteer from Virginia Beach who has been involved with the organization since she ran the Final Mile in fifth grade. She studies health and nutrition at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia.