15. Haingo, Madagascar 2016

Haingo was born in a tropical downpour. In the hut’s dim light it was clear Hiango’s tiny mouth was slashed by a bi-lateral cleft lip. Her father immediately rejected the newborn.


Viviaby immediately loved her baby girl and was shocked when her husband declared, ‘In our family, we don’t have babies like this!’ No one in their Madagascan village had heard of this disfigurement. But the visible deformity was the least of Haingo’s problems.

Haingo was unable to breastfeed because of her cleft palate. The hole in the roof of her mouth prevented Haingo from sucking. Her father said, ‘It’s not going to survive so you’d better kill it!’ Her mother declared, ‘Let her live!’

Viviaby kept Haingo alive with diluted canned milk – each can cost a day’s wages. Still, Haingo failed to thrive. ‘She was getting more and more skinny. I was afraid, I was always praying.’ At seven months old Haingo weighed only 2.2kg – she was smaller than a newborn.

Superstition and cruel comments crushed them on every side – until one day women who recently received free surgeries on the Mercy Ship walked by their secluded village. They heard about Haingo and told Viviaby to find the ship.

So for two days, petite, courageous Vivaby carried her baby through the rugged countryside to find transport to the Mercy Ships patient screening in her region.

The urgency of Haingo’s situation was accessed as critical by the Mercy Ships screening team and they were rushed to the hospital ship. Paediatric nurses began around-the-clock emergency nutrition. Haingo began to gain weight and become responsive.

Viviaby talked with other mothers of cleft lip babies in the ward. She was comforted and no longer felt alone. After 10 days Haingo was stabilised. They were discharged to the HOPE Centre to continue the feeding programme and wait until the baby was big enough for surgery.

As Haingo grew, she tracked movement with eyes that were previously glazed and waved goodbye with chubby arms that had been so frail. After five months Haingo reached the vital 3.5 kg ‘average weight for height’ benchmark. At last, she was strong enough to undergo the first operation – to repair her cleft lip.

When Viviaby and Haingo returned to their village, Haingo’s brother was distraught. ‘You exchanged my sister!’ he accused, not recognising her.

At 13 months old Haingo received her final free operation. Only now, with her palate closed, can she eat and drink normally, with the ability to speak clearly. ‘Nobody believed someone could help Haingo,’ her Mum declared. ‘Haingo would have died. But my baby is healed!’

In 2000, Dr Keith came to the aid of the family again, when Guinea expelled English-speaking refugees. Augustine was thrown into prison for five days. Dr Keith helped them find flights out of the country and arranged for a place to stay in Ghana.

‘I really appreciate what Dr Keith did, and what he and his family are still doing, for my family,’ shared Tina. ‘Some other person might have saved my mum’s life and lost communication, but he has helped us all these years.’

The Contehs were eventually recognised as refugees and immigrated to Australia.‘My parents told me when I was growing up, You are a miracle – don’t forget that’, Tina explains.

The life-long story of mercy’s reach came full circle for Tina in 2011, when she was 18 years old. She signed up to volunteer aboard the Mercy Ship herself, during a return field service to Sierra Leone. ‘Put simply, it is thanks to Mercy Ships that both my mother and I are alive today’, she said at the time. ‘That alone makes me want to give something back.’