Few people will thankfully ever experience the shame and anguish that the mild-mannered John Kibari faced growing up with a cleft lip. It was only a chance encounter in a shopping mall parking lot and the committed care of Operation Smile South Africa that allowed this effusive gentleman the opportunity to finally show the world his smile.
“I was born and raised in Kigali, Rwanda and from the time I was five years old I remember being ashamed. Everyone who saw me would laugh and even point me out to others,” tells Kibari.
John’s mother sought help for her son but the access to surgery was limited and so the help they received proved futile. A move to South Africa in 2010 did not bring any relief from the staring and whispering.
“It was even worse when I got here. When I would travel in taxi’s or busses I would see and hear people talking about me in all the different languages.”
The issues that John’s cleft lip caused him went beyond the torment he faced from people but also practical struggles like drinking or even pronouncing certain letters and words saw John retreat even further into himself. It was in 2010 while working as a customer assistant at the Paddocks shopping centre in Cape Town that John would have the chance encounter that would change his life.
“I was helping a lady and when she saw my lip she asked what had happened. I told her that I had been born like that. She gave me a website address and told me about a man called David Grier who could help me,” explains John.
John did not wait long before sending Operation Smile ambassador David Grier an email explaining his situation. “I checked my messages just a few hours later and there was a response from Operation Smile. I was confused because I had sent a message to this man and then the reply did not come from him but from Operation Smile. I did not know Operation Smile but I sent a follow-up message to Operation Smile and they replied.”
John was able to receive surgery during the Operation Smile mission in February 2013 and admits that his friends and family were in awe of the transformation. “
“When I came from hospital some people were confused and asking is this John? My sister, who stays in Cape Town, when she saw me and she was crying saying this is unbelievable. Before I couldn’t close the lips and bring them together, the teeth were out and now I can close my mouth.”
The surgery has not only changed the way John looks but has seen his personality blossom and with it bring about a career change.
“In the past I didn’t talk a lot because I was ashamed and the pronunciation was a problem, so I just kept quiet. I am a taxi driver today and now when I am with clients we talk about everything and we discuss everything. They understand me and everything I am saying which was not the case before,” smiles Kibari.
The surgeries provided by Operation Smile are free and John knows that without the costs being covered that in all likelihood he would have struggled to access care.
“Before I got to know Operation Smile I was just going to hospitals and asking how much it would be and they told me that it was very expensive and I can’t afford it.”
John’s experience has not just impacted himself or the people closest to him but has seen him become an advocate for Operation Smile. In addition to featuring his before and after images on his public social media profiles he is now being contacted to speak with other potential patients.
“I was contacted by someone I used to work with who knows of a man in Goodwood with a cleft lip so I went to see him and explained all about Operation Smile and the surgery. I have given him the details and will collect him and introduce him to everything as soon as he is ready,” confirms John.