Profiles

Martin Kamau's smile life mission

martin kamau

Dr Martin Kamau, co-founder, BelaRisu Medical Centre at the facility on October 5, 2022. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

Not many might know this but today is National World Smile Day. You mark it by spreading deliberate acts of kindness and making someone smile. Dr Martin Kamau knows what day it is. He has been in the smile business for many years now, being an oral and maxillofacial surgeon [and a lecturer at The University of Nairobi].

Together with the largest cleft charity, Smile Train, his foundation Bela Risu [rooted in Latin for beautiful smile] has conducted over 3,000 cleft surgeries in Kenya, Somalia, Somaliland, Angola, and South Sudan.

In the heart of Ngara’s Park Road, he sits in their newly opened medical centre, The Bela Risu Medical Centre where they will provide treatment for patients with a cleft. It’s the first of its kind in the region and a very good reason for him to be all smiley.

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Just how important is a smile?

Most parts of our bodies are covered by clothing when we come out to interact with the world, except for our faces. We can hide a lot under our clothes; we can hide defects on our arms, and legs but not on the face. This is why we spend a lot of time working on our faces. We groom our faces more; we trim our beards, keep good hairstyles, and wear makeup.

Your face is what you present to the world. It’s what people interact with first and first impressions matter. Now imagine you come with a defect on your face. The first thing people see is that defect, they don't even see you. You will be that defect in essence, no matter how much more you have to offer as a human being. Now imagine you are not able to smile because of that defect, because nothing disarms more than a smile. The impact of being unable to smile is immense, it’s psychological. So, a smile is everything.

You are called Kamau. Are people always surprised when they meet your face eventually and can’t reconcile it with your name?

[Chuckles] I'll tell you a funny story. When I finished my postgraduate course in maxillofacial surgery, I was posted to Meru. I remember sitting outside the medical superintendent's office, waiting to introduce myself. The secretary had informed him that Mr Kamau was waiting at the reception. Moments later he opened his door and looked around at the reception and he was confused. He asked her, “but where is this Mr Kamau I can't see him?” I was the only person there, so I stood up and said, 'it’s me.' He was confused. [Chuckles]. I get that a lot, even with patients but it’s a great icebreaker.

What’s the story there, then?

So, first, I’m fully Kenyan, born and raised, and studied here. My dad, Mr Kamau, went to Europe on a scholarship and met my mother, a South Korean. He was studying, she was working, they fell in love and came back to settle in Kenya and the rest, as they say, is history.

I grew up in Ngong Town, in Kajiado; with fresh air, Masaais, and open land. I went to  Lavington Primary then to Upper Hill Secondary, then finally joined the University of Nairobi where I did my undergraduate degree in dentistry and a post-graduate degree in oral and maxillofacial surgery. And that's essentially where the journey begins. My dad was a veterinary surgeon and around our home there were a lot of books on biology and anatomy.

So a lot of that influence put you on this career path from the beginning…

Yeah. It was a good influence. I specialised in oral maxillofacial surgery because I enjoyed it. Then when I finished, that was about 10 years ago, I was introduced to cleft care. I’d volunteer a lot. I found it interesting because the patients who are afflicted with clefts tend to come from lower socioeconomic status and they can't afford healthcare. They kind of just slip through the cracks.

Unfortunately, our universal health care is focused on 'bigger conditions' like HIV/Aids and cancer, at the expense of some of these conditions. I remember seeing a lot of transformation in the lives of people on who we performed cleft surgery. It was immediate. I decided then to join this cause with Smile Train and this is how this came to be [ waves hands around], co-founded by my friend, Mr Kimani, the very first stand-alone comprehensive cleft lip and palate centre in sub-Saharan Africa. The reason why it looks so new is that we are a week old. [Chuckles].

Interesting.

No, I will tell you what’s interesting. [Holds hands up] I know you said this is a personal interview but this here, what I do, is very personal. It’s a good part of who I am. Here is an interesting observation worth pondering over. Six children born in Kenya daily have clefts. That's maybe 40 a week, 2,000 a year since 1970. That’s 80,000 people so far. I don’t think any of them were treated but have you ever seen a doctor, journalist, engineer, or lawyer, with a cleft? Where are these adults?

What does that say?

It says that a lot of them are hidden, they're somewhere. You can imagine from when you start growing up and you're ostracised as a child because of your cleft, what happens? You become an introvert and you hide away from society. You probably fail in school because people are constantly teasing you. You drop off, or you withdraw away. My job is to stop that narrative and give these children a chance to be whatever they want to be.

What are some of the nuances of mixed race have you had to navigate?

Have I really? [Pause] You know, I don’t feel it much here. I have grown up here and I was not treated any different. I wouldn't know how it feels to be different. I mean, sure, there were the usual ‘mzungu mzungu’ calls in Maasai-land when I was growing up, or when my dad was buried in Murang'a but mostly people are just curious about my heritage. It never goes past that.

Tell me about your mom.

Retired nurse. She has been here since 1970, she’s very Kenyan. She speaks English, Kiswahili, and Kikuyu. She decided to stay here because I'll be honest Kenya is a beautiful country. So even when she goes back to South Korea she's like, 'okay fine, I've seen enough I’m going back.' When she went abroad, South Korea had just endured the war and was very poor, poorer than Kenya. When she even came to Kenya she said ‘my goodness, this is like Europe, there's no way I'm going back to South Korea.’ But of course, things have changed. South Korea is like the 12th largest economy now and things have kind of inverted, but the beauty is still here so she has stayed.

What do you struggle with now as a man in his early 40s?

Young family. I'm married with two children so obviously trying to make sure that they get a good education, among others. You want to ensure that you give them the best but everything is so expensive and it keeps getting more expensive. I think the philosophy that one has to arrive at eventually is doing your best and making sure you give your family better than you were given.

I imagine that what you do has an impact on how you view life, not only yours but others as well...

Exactly, it gives you a deeper perspective of life. For instance, my view on success has changed after doing the lot of outreaches in some of the most impoverished areas. There's a time I went to Congo with an anesthesiologist friend. We volunteered to do operations at a hospital and when it was done, as we were leaving the hospital we were mobbed by a group of women carrying their babies, singing, and dancing.

That’s a feeling buying a new house or a new car could never give you. I don’t know where else you can get that feeling. That is success for me, changing the trajectory of someone's life and pivoting them towards success. It changes you. Money is good and money does things money does, but when we see how the lives of people are transformed through these surgeries, it changes the idea of happiness and fulfillment. It's a different feeling.

Does it help that you're a father when you deal with children with clefts as a doctor, or is this fact inconsequential?

It does. For any doctor, first of all, you probably have to have compassion. You have to have that drive. Being a parent, on the other hand, gives you a new perspective. You will feel it and you will understand it in a way that someone who doesn’t have children will. It gives you a new dimension.

What do you identify yourself most as, father, husband, or doctor?

[Pause] That's an interesting question but also a very tricky one, Biko. It can easily land me in trouble. [Laughs]. I think that question is difficult because you're all of them at the same time and they all make you the individual you are. It's hard to strip it, to be honest, and I wouldn't want to strip it anyway.

To be a surgeon, you must be very good with your hands. When did you realise you were good with your hands?

[Long pause] I didn't think I was much of an artiste back in the day. Surgery is both science and art because when you're trying to do a cleft you have to create a symmetry of the lips which in turn creates harmony on the face. There's a science because you have to restore function. With surgery of this nature, there is a lot of repetition involved because you do it a lot. The more you do, the better you get. The less you operate, the worse for you as a surgeon.

How do you let loose?

I relax with friends and relatives. I love watching Formula One. I used to love football, and I still like it, but Arsenal used to lose too much back in the day. I love sports and I used to play but now my bones are a bit creaky and can't jump that high but anyway, basketball is nice.

What did you learn from your dad that you're using now as a father?

That's an interesting one. Just be you. You can't hide from who you are. He was himself, he did the best he could. You don't have to be widely successful, just try the best you can for the people around you. I think that's good enough.

What fears do you possess for yourself?

Eh Biko you've got some tough questions. [Pause] I'll give you a very overly broad answer…

Please, don't…

[Chuckles] No no. It's an outlook because it trickles down. This is not fear but a question of circumstances around me that I can’t control no matter how much effort I put into things. Like the economy for instance. If it’s not working, and through no fault of mine, I will be affected. You must know the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” That’s the context. So there is no fear but fear itself, as they say.

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