Nafiou’s father saw him before he was born.
According to Abou, a short time before his second child was to be born, he had a dream he would never forget.
“In my dream, I saw exactly the lip of Nafiou. I saw the cleft before he was born. In the dream, I was sleeping when someone brought the child and put it in front of me and said, ‘This is the child you’ll have. You need to take care of him and be patient with him.’”
He didn’t tell anyone what he saw in the dream.
Weeks later, Nafiou was born with a cleft lip and palate. Abou was not surprised. His family, perhaps due to his lack of reaction, kept asking him, “Have you seen the child?”
“Yes,” he said, over and over again. This was exactly the child he had seen.
The two directives given to Abou in his dream, “take care of him and be patient with him,” are particularly meaningful in the context of Niger. In Niger, as in all of the locations CURE serves, there is very little care for children with disabilities. There is very little patience for them. Josh Korn, Executive Director of CURE Niger, explains:
“For children who have disabilities here in Niger—any disability, but especially a cleft lip or a cleft palate, something that's on the face, that is very visible—life is very hard. They are seen as unclean, as impure, and a lot of times they are rejected by their society. We have heard of people who are unable to drink from the same cup as anyone else from their own family or eat from the same bowl because their lip is considered dirty. It is a lonely existence where you are rejected and by yourself, and your future prospects are to continue to be rejected and by yourself.”
“A lonely existence” is a perfect description of Nafiou’s childhood. The opening in the roof of his mouth made it difficult for him to speak or be understood. His mother, Maimou, says they never even considered sending him to school because he wouldn’t be able to communicate like other kids.
He didn’t look like other kids, either. Friends would come to his house from time to time, but they refused to go outside with him. They didn’t want to be seen with him.
When Nafiou was born, a nurse told his family not to worry because his condition could be treated. They just had to wait until he was a little bit older to have surgery.
But they never took Nafiou back for surgery. They couldn’t afford the trip or the procedure. Nafiou’s family is extremely poor, and his father is sick. Abou has suffered from migraines and a variety of other physical ailments ever since he was a child. He tried to travel and look for money for Nafiou’s treatment, but he became so sick that he had to come home.
And so, in a remote area of the desert, Nafiou and his family waited. They waited for money. They waited for the day when they could take him out of the house unashamed. They took care of him, and they were patient with him...
and they waited.
It would be hard to imagine a scenario in which Nafiou would be less likely to find healing.
He was born into poverty in a remote portion of a desert nation twice the size of Texas. From Niamey, it takes seven hours on the main road and then two additional hours on a sand “road” to get to Nafiou’s village. His family doesn’t have money for food, let alone money to travel outside of their village, so they didn’t have a way to advocate for him in the ways he needed. And even if he wanted to advocate for himself, he couldn’t. The difficulties he faced in communication combined with the stigma of his disability made his chances of finding help as remote as his village.
The only way to find Nafiou is to know someone who knows someone who knows Nafiou and is willing to take you directly to him, because you’d never find him on your own.
And yet, Nafiou was found.
Our friends at Samaritan’s Purse were told about Nafiou during an outreach they did in his area. They brought him to CURE Niger with his grandmother, Oumou. They traveled all day and arrived in the children’s ward around 10pm, about the same time we did on our first night in Niger.
Nafiou stood out to us from the other kids in the ward because, in a way that drew as little attention to himself as possible, he was crying.
“For Nafiou and kids like Nafiou, it’s a whole different world coming to Niamey. Many of them have never seen people that aren’t Nigerien; they have never seen electricity or running water; they sometimes don't even know how to do the simplest things, like opening a door. You can imagine it would be a scary experience, going from being hidden away and pretty secluded to traveling this way, experiencing these new things, meeting these new people, and not knowing what's going to happen or what they’re going to do to you.
“Most children here don't cry. They never cry. They are taught not to cry, no matter what. They have a lot of resilience and strength, but sometimes they are not able to express their emotions and can get in trouble if they cry.
“It was pretty remarkable to see Nafiou crying. He seemed overwhelmed and a little bit scared, but he still came. That is a reflection of his courage and the courage of all of our patients and their families.”
Josh Korn, Executive Director, CURE Niger
Nafiou went into the operating room early the next morning and came out about an hour later. He was the same exact kid, except for an inch or so of reconstruction and some stitches, and yet the entire direction of his life had changed.
Surgery, though, is only one part of healing.
“When a child gets healed physically, when their legs are straightened and their lips are repaired, they look wonderful; they look beautiful. But on the inside, they’re still so afraid to go out into the world. They literally don’t know how to do it.
“When they come into the art therapy room and see all these materials and get to choose whatever they want to draw or paint with, they’re shocked. They’re like, ‘This is for me? You’re saying I get to do this by myself? I get to do whatever I want?’ It’s mind blowing for them because they’ve never had that.
“It’s hard to comprehend that children here... it’s not a given that they get to be kids. They’re either at home, working, cleaning, cooking, or busy taking care of another sibling. They don’t get the opportunity to just be free and have fun. And so when you see a kid walking into the hospital and he’s scared and won’t look at you, and then by the end of his time here he’s wild and crazy and running around being a kid, it’s so great to see. When they get to spend time one-on-one and see that they’re so loved and that Jesus loves them so much, they start to build up confidence and believe, ‘Yes, I am important.’”
Julie Korn, Art Therapist, CURE Niger
The most critical component of Nafiou’s healing had nothing to do with his physical recovery. His lip was healing nicely. But it had been days since we met Nafiou, and we still hadn’t seen any signs of positive emotions. No eye contact. No smiles. We hadn’t heard him make a single sound.
After what felt like an eternity, we finally heard Nafiou make a sound.
“We were watching the art therapy kids play balloon volleyball. Nafiou was becoming a little more comfortable taking some swings at the balloon. And then, all of a sudden, he just started giggling. I turned to Luke and said, ‘Did you just hear that? Did he just laugh?’ We both just started grinning because the reward in hearing Nafiou’s joy was a little overwhelming.”
Jenny England, Director of Creative Services, CURE International
Nafiou began to change significantly, in ways so simple and so subtle they could easily be taken for granted. It’s not remarkable when most kids laugh or draw or dance, but for Nafiou, it was. Every time he stepped out of his shell to try something new, he took a step toward becoming himself.
Nafiou had plenty of first-time experiences at CURE Niger. He had never even seen a white person before. He had never danced to Taylor Swift songs or used colorful art supplies. But by a landslide, the greatest first-time experience he was given wasn’t so much an experience as it was an environment.
For the first time in his life, Nafiou didn’t have to be The Kid Who Was Different. He was allowed to be seen and known and loved for who he really is: Nafiou.
“He was treated without any kind of difference. He was like everyone in the hospital. He was treated very well. We are so thankful for what you did for us.”
Oumou, Nafiou’s grandmother
Back at home, Nafiou’s family anxiously awaited his arrival. They couldn’t wait to see him. But by the time Nafiou and Oumou reached home, it was late at night. Without electricity or a source of light, there was no way for him to be seen in the darkness.
“I found that night very long. I was so excited to see the day. We stayed awake, me and my sister-in-law, to see Nafiou. Around 5am, I asked his younger brother to go to our family’s house and tell them that Nafiou is back. As soon as they were informed, they came. In the morning, everyone came to see him. Even the villages around us. Everyone came to see him and congratulate the family.”
Maimou, Nafiou’s mother
Later, when I asked Maimou why she stayed awake all night waiting to see Nafiou, she said, “It is because of the joy.”
“I saw Nafiou at this hospital last summer. He was a boy who didn’t want to be with people. He was always keeping to the side. But I was amazed when, after the treatment, I went to visit the family. He was really joyful! He was even the one who volunteered to go and see a potential patient for us. The chief of the village asked in the crowd, ‘Who will go to check for a young lady who has burns?’ He immediately showed up and was willing to do it. This is really exceptional because he wouldn't have behaved like this before. The change is undeniable, really.”
Habib Ohoussou, Assistant Director, CURE Niger
This Nafiou—the one Habib described and the one we got to see when we visited his village five months after meeting him at CURE Niger—is the real Nafiou. The parts of him that were hidden before are slowly being revealed. Nafiou laughs. He likes to dance. He likes to help. He has a best friend. He is the one everyone is looking for instead of the one they are trying to avoid.
“Before, no one is his friend. But now, he has many friends. Now he is joyful. Even in the night they come and ask, ‘Where is Nafiou?’”
Maimou, Nafiou’s mother
See more of Nafiou's story, and other encouraging stories, in the movie Modern Day Miracles at cure.org/miracles.