Our visit to Malawi

Last year we were delighted to announce “Cleft Free Malawi”, a new collaboration with Operation Smile.

Cleft Free Malawi is an ambitious project with two aims:

  • To eradicate the backlog of cleft patients in Malawi
  • To provide the training and support to Malawian health care professionals in order to build a sustainable and self-perpetuating ability to provide cleft care in the country

As we approach the end of the first year of this project, the Kentown Wizard Foundation wanted to visit Malawi to see first hand the incredible work that is being done and to understand more about the country.

This being said our CEO Margaret Ingram proceeded to do just that and on the 3rd of April boarded a flight to Lilongwe. Below is an account of Margaret’s visit in her own words.

As I left Lilongwe airport I was instantly struck by how green and beautiful the country is. Before arriving I had imagined a dry, red landscape but the rain over the previous few weeks had brought everything to life.

Over the next five days I observed the medical mission and talked to many of the volunteers taking part. For me, it was a very humbling experience. The dedication and commitment of these volunteers is unquestionable – many of those I spoke to have been giving their time and considerable skills to Operation Smile missions for many years.

In between meeting volunteers I was able to observe every stage of the registration and assessment process. The dignity and patience of the Malawian mothers and fathers who brought their children for surgery was incredible and although the process was lengthy and tedious, there were smiles and good humour everywhere I looked.

On day four, I observed three operations and was completely awe struck by the skill of the surgeons. These surgeons really do change the lives of these children forever.

I had by now seen the entire process from start to finish but had not yet seen the aftereffects of these life changing procedures. It was at this point that I was taken to a remote village to meet the beautiful Sarah.

Sarah was 2 years old at the time and 6 months prior to my visit had received her surgery. It is extremely difficult for me to find words to describe the overwhelming feeling I had being introduced to such incredibly strong and happy family. During my visit, Sarah’s mother explained the struggles the family faced prior to Sarah’s surgery and the complete transformation this has had on their daughter’s future.

Having had this chance to witness Operation Smile’s work first hand I am certain in the knowledge that the Foundation’s money is being well spent and that Cleft Free Malawi will be a lasting legacy for our founder Ken Townsley.

I will always remember what one of the volunteers said to me while discussing Operation Smile missions:


“You think you are healing the children but really they are healing you”

and as I begin my return journey home, I could not agree more.

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Charity Registration number: 1091316

In April of 2017, Richard Ingle, one of our trustees, booked himself on a flight to Malawi to experience first-hand a medical mission by Operation Smile. A grant from The Kentown Wizard Foundation funded the mission to operate on children with cleft conditions. 

Here is Richard’s story…

Four months prior to my arrival in Southern Malawi, a two man Malawian team had travelled around the villages to identify around 200 potential patients who were willing to attend the mission for surgery. I was informed that around 80 of these children would be rejected at the screening process due to malaria, malnutrition or other medical issues.

The Operation Smile team consists of 66 people from around the world including 10 surgeons, 5 of them being Malawian. They are immensely proud, committed and considerably loyal to Operation Smile. They feel privileged to be part of this team and to give their time and expertise to a nation that has so little.

Cleft conditions are life threatening. It causes malnutrition as the child cannot eat normally and babies cannot breastfeed. Speech is impaired which can damage brain development. Cleft problems also result in social stigma and exclusion from village life.

I visit the shelter where the families are staying. It is a boarding school in term time but, presently, its April and therefore school holidays. They are being brought here by bus and together with mothers and other family members there are around 450 in total. 

The head paediatrician tells me that the two-day screening which is taking place is a difficult time due to the scarcity of historical medical records for the children. 

Everywhere is bustling and I see the volunteer nurses who are stacking and unpacking boxes of medical supplies and cleansing the two small operating rooms the best they can (there are 19 nurses on this mission). Sadly, the hospital is in a poor state of repair with flaking paint on the walls, concrete floors and grubby operating tables under broken theatre lights. I discover i’m going to witness a most resourceful theatre team who conduct surgery using portable lamps strapped to the surgeons forehead.

Malawians rise with the sun and day one begins at 05:45am. After a breakfast briefing, we leave the hotel and all move off to the hospital. There are 5 surgical teams and procedures will continue over the next 5 days. Each surgical procedure takes either 45 minutes or 90 minutes depending whether it will be for a cleft lip or a full palate repair. There is a target therefore of 125 operations. I have been advised to stay away from the operating rooms this first day as the surgical teams are stressed. They have never worked together before and are familiarising themselves with their equipment, surroundings and their respective team members. 

I take the opportunity to explore the hospital further. There is a post-op recovery room where the children rest prior to being reunited with their mothers. The mothers then carry them to the far end of the hospital to a ward, where they will all remain under close observation. 

In the waiting room, the mothers are dressed in the most colourful, sarong style outfits and I note how elegant and straight they stand. Is this from carrying things on their heads or is it from transporting their babies on their backs?

Outside the painted blue and white hospital, another bus arrives from the shelter with more children and their families. It will soon be time for their life changing surgery 

A long first day ends for the team around 10:00pm in the evening and this schedule continues for a further four days. One mothers reaction after her sons operation was very emotional as she tells me she is now able to walk alongside her fellow villagers instead of behind them. How can you put a price on this?

I leave Malawi knowing The Kentown Wizard Foundation have funded this mission, where these life changing operations have been completed and a legacy of medical expertise has been passed on to the Malawian team so that they may address ongoing cleft problems, carrying on the good work.


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Charity Registration number: 1091316

Operation Smile is an international medical charity whose global network of medical volunteers is dedicated to improving the health and lives of children suffering from cleft conditions.

Each year, volunteer medical teams travel to resource-poor environments and donate their time, knowledge and skills to provide free, safe and effective surgical procedures which change children’s lives forever.

Training and education are intrinsic to Operation Smile’s work. To build long term sustainability the medical volunteers share knowledge with local health care providers so that they are empowered to treat their local communities long after the volunteers have left.

Sisters Andrea and Jheleen after receiving life-changing surgery from Operation Smile

In 2017 The Kentown Wizard Foundation made a grant of £200,000 to Operation Smile to fund a medical mission to Malawi. As a result of this grant, the lives of 125 children were transformed and valuable skills were transferred to Malawian medical professionals to build their surgical capabilities. 

Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world and it is estimated that 2,400 children and young adults are living with unprepared cleft conditions. With only four surgeons able to perform cleft surgery in the whole country, progress is slow and limited. In the meantime, as many as 93% of children with unprepared cleft conditions could die before their 20th birthdays from malnourishment, infections or other associated complications. Those who do survive are vulnerable to negative attitudes, marginalisation and social stigma. 

We feel compelled to try to help these children and have therefore entered into an ambitious multi-year funding agreement with Operation Smile to achieve Cleft-Free Malawi.

The Kentown Wizard Foundation has committed $5.3million to this five-year project and our aim is to eradicate the backlog of patients awaiting surgery and to upskill the Malawian healthcare system so that future children born with a cleft condition are given the safe, effective and timely treatment they deserve. 


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