Running for a smile at Berlin Marathon

Smile Train charity

Members of the Smile Train team, “The Sunrisers” during early morning training at the Parklands Sports Club in Nairobi on August 31, 2022. They are (Front row, from left to right) Keru Nderi, Catherine Karita, Beatrice Gichohi, Rashmi Shah, Susan Nderi and Kellen Kariuki. Five members of the team will run for charity in today’s Berlin Marathon. Left (facing page): Rashmi Shah warms down.

Photo credit: Pool

Nancy Njeri Kariuki’s infectious smile camouflages the anxiety hidden beneath.

With high profile guests besides her in one of the recovery rooms at the Gertrude’s Gardens Children’s Hospital in Nairobi, the 25-year-old mother of two is pretty much successful in shielding her apprehension.

Njeri’s four-month-old daughter Valery Njoki was under the surgeon’s knife for a corrective cleft lip surgery.

The young mother is anxiously awaiting her baby’s return from the operating theatre and the 45-minute procedure, conducted by US-trained consultant oral and maxillofacial reconstructive surgeon Dr Tom Osundwa, seems to be taking a lifetime.

Young Njoki was born with cleft lip and cleft palate, defects that come about when a baby’s lip and, or, mouth fail to form properly during pregnancy.

According to statistics made available by Smile Train, a charity that raises funds for surgeries to correct cleft lip and cleft palate, one in 700 babies are born with such deformity globally.

The deformity causes difficulties in eating, breathing, hearing and speaking.

Standing left to right: Rashmi Shah, Kellen Kariuki, Dr Tom Osundwa and Nancy Njeri Kariuki (holding her baby Valery Njoki) after Njoki’s successful cleft lip surgery on August 31, 2022, at the Gertrude’s Garden Children’s Hospital in Nairobi.

In Africa, according to the Smile Train charity, there are 35,000 children born  with a cleft lip/palate annually with the charity’s 30 active surgeons in 25 partner hospitals in Kenya having contributed to approximately 10,500 successful cleft surgeries since the Smile Train’s inception in Kenya some 20 years ago in 2002.

Njoki’s surgery is courtesy of Smile Train and comes as a huge relief to her mother who felt ostracised by many who saw her daughter’s deformity as a curse.

“When I gave birth and saw my daughter, I was in shock,” Njeri, 24, recounted as two guests who had paid her a visit listened keenly.

“I could not breastfeed her due to her condition, and resorted to Nan (milk powder infant formula) ... then I asked myself if the condition is hereditary.”

Njeri was scared by stories she had heard about mothers having to hide children with such deformities, with some communities considering it a curse to bring forth such offspring.

“But after attending postnatal clinics and talking to other parents of children with the same condition, I accepted the fact that it can be addressed.”

It was through a Facebook post on the “Pregnant and Nursing Mums” group that Njeri learnt about free cleft lip and palate surgeries conducted by Smile Train in 25 hospitals across Kenya.

“Through the group, people told me where I could get help and that’s how I called Gertrude’s Hospital and met Dr Osundwa on appointment on June 2,” Njeri, whose perfectly-born first born daughter Lilian is now two years and three months old, narrates.

Recreational runners’ team

“My baby was then 3.8 kilogrammes and I was told to let her grow to at least 4.5 kilos for the surgery to take place,” she adds as two guests Rashmi Shah and Kellen Kariuki listen attentively.

Baby Njoki was booked for the surgery at Gertrude’s Garden Children’s Hospital for 8am on August 31, and it’s while the procedure was ongoing that we engaged her in the interview. Rashmi, a leading entrepreneur, and Kellen, Board Chairperson at Standard Chartered Bank, Kenya, are both members of the Smile Train recreational runners’ team — popularly known as “Sunrise Runners” —  a group of early-rising, committed fitness junkies happy to also raise funds for charity.

And as world marathon record holder Eliud Kipchoge eyes another landmark run on the streets of Berlin today, Rashmi and four fellow fun runners will finish probably three hours behind the legend, but chasing a different target — to raise funds to finance free cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries, like that being done by Dr Osundwa on Baby Njoki.

Accompanied by Smile Train’s Communications Manager for Africa Emily Manjeru, we were at the Parklands Sports Club in Nairobi as early as 5am that day to follow the Sunrise Runners’ dawn training session, after which we would join them on a visit to Gertrude’s to follow that day’s theatre activities, including baby Njoki’s date with Dr Osundwa.

Smile Train

Members of the Smile Train “Sunrise Runners”, from left to right: Rashmi Shah, Catherine Karita, Kellen Kariuki, Beatrice Gichohi and Shirish Shah after a final training session in Nairobi ahead of today’s Berlin Marathon. 

Photo credit: Pool

Running at the Berlin Marathon today will see a team of recreational runners add onto the Sh1.6 million they have already collected in charity for Smile Train’s free cleft surgeries.  Njeri now understands the link between sport and medical charities after Rashmi takes her through the fund raising initiative.

“I hardly follow sport, but sometimes I watch football and Chelsea is my team,” she quips, her focus temporarily deflected from worrying thoughts of her baby under the knife to the troubles at Stamford Bridge.

Just two nights before, Chelsea’s 23rd-minute opener by Raheem Sterling had been cancelled by goals in the 28th and 45th minutes by Romeo Lavia and Adam Amstrong as the Blues suffered a 2-1 loss to Southampton at St Mary’s Stadium that would precipitate the sacking of their decorated coach Thomas Tuchel.

It is something Njeri would love to forget.

“With a few days to go, we have trained well with discipline for the last 10 months,” 68-year-old Rashmi explains their preparations for Berlin. “We just need to keep the body free from injuries. .. It will be the mind vs body in the 42-kilometre course. We will think of the Smile Train children who will benefit from our fundraising. The image of the smile of the child and parents takes away the pain!”

Dr Osundwa

Dr Osundwa (second right) and his team of medics perform a successful cleft lip operation on Njoki at the hospital earlier on the same day. 

Photo credit: Pool

His son, Kavit, 38, also an avid golf and squash player, is also among the team running in the Berlin Marathon today along with 68-year-old Shirish Shah and fit young ladies Catherine Karita and Beatrice Gichohi who push the  older folks all the way in endurance sports. 

“Running the Berlin Marathon is no mean feat. I’m super excited to be a part of this year’s run ... I’m running through the Smile Train charity to assist children born with a cleft lip smile again,” reflects Karita. “The bigger deal is that I have raised funds to go towards changing a child’s future, giving them their smile back, great confidence and self-esteem.”

Catching up with Njeri last Thursday, two weeks after her daughter’s surgery, it’s easy to sense the young mother’s relief.  “I’m very happy she has healed now and the stitches are out ...  I’m extremely happy that she can now breastfeed,” said  Njeri, who now awaits the second operation to rectify her daughter’s cleft palate after which she will be like any other child.

Rashmi and Co will be lining up at the Berlin Marathon’s starting point near the famous Brandenburg Gate, seeking to run to make Njoki and others smile.

Dr Osundwa has, meanwhile, created a WhatsApp group for parents of children born with cleft lips and cleft palates to help them demystify the condition.

Africa-trained medic

“I’ve tried to bring them together so that they can articulate issues well,” explains the USA and South Africa-trained medic who has previously served on Smile Train’s Medical Advisory Council.

“I put in Sh50,000 as seed money to help them handle various needs like transpor ... I get emotional and it pains me that some of these mothers don’t even have bus fare to get to hospital,” he adds, emotion clearly etched on his face.

Jamhuri High School alumnus Rashmi (class of 1972) is a chartered accountant who worked briefly in the United Kingdom before returning to Kenya in 1978 to work at Coopers and Lybrand, now PricewaterhouseCoopers.

He quit in 1978 and four years later launched a shoe company — C&P Shoe Industries — that manufactures affordable footwear on Mombasa Road, Nairobi.

With Eliud Kipchoge racing in an upgraded version “Nike Air Zoom Alphafly NEXT % 2” shoe today, Rashmi will not race in C&P-manufactured footwear, but has preferred “On”, a Swiss-prepared shoe.  “At my age, I can’t try to copy the professionals ... I need a show that will handle my age well.”

After today’s Berlin Marathon, Rashmi — who has been religiously training at the Parklands Sports Club for the last 44 years — targets the London Marathon in 2024, when he turns 70. 

“I will do lots of charities in that year to mark my 70th year – the year of giving,” he says. 

Today, he hopes to complete the Berlin Marathon with his four compatriots, to help put a smile on children born with cleft lip and cleft palate deformities.