Painful moments of humiliation and ridicule still linger in her mind.
Chisomo Sagawa, a resident of Chitawira in Blantyre, suffered untold misery in her struggle with club foot from a tender age.
“Life was not easy. I had few friends. Many peers used to mock me, saying I was walking like a monkey. Others simply called me a chimpanzee.”
Being born with deformed feet did not only leave her with walking difficulties.
She could not wear shoes because her feet were bent inwards.
“I always wore on slippers,” she says. “But my terrible condition did not warrant anybody to insult me. I didn’t ask for it.”
According to Malawi National Club foot Programme manager Steven Mpunga, the condition leaves feet “a little stiff”.
The inward bending of feet is common among children and largely affects them as they grow.
Alternatively called talipes equinovarus, it also constitutes a range of unusual positions-with some pointing inward and others downward. Yet others point upwards.
The condition mostly begins at birth and can occur in one foot or both.
Club foot is caused by a mix of genetic and environmental factors as well as bad posture or ill positioning of the baby as it develops in the womb.
“We can’t really tell the specific causes of club foot, but the good news is that it is curable. The earlier patients are brought to the hospital, the simpler the treatment they get,” says Mpunga.
Club foot is also linked with other conditions-especially spina bifida, a birth defect which leads to incomplete closing of the backbone and membranes around the spinal cord.
Doctors advise parents and guardians to take children for regular medical checkup.
Chisomo acknowledges that life was never easy and her self-confidence, education and life suffered in the process.
“My morale was sinking every time some people called me derogatory names because of the way I was walking. I often felt out of place and even stopped going to school to avoid being mocked,” she recalls.
But things turned around in 2004 when her parents took her to Beit Cure International Hospital in Blantyre for treatment.
Chisomo’s story changed for the better as the girl now boasts the ease of a fashion model or beauty queen on the catwalk.
“I was successfully cured after spending some time at Beit Cure. Since then I walk confidently just like any other person. Overcoming club foot has transformed my life,” testifies Chisomo.
The first stage of treatment usually takes about four to six weeks during which a cast is put on the patient’s foot every week.
The rest of treatment is about the shoes they put on.
But serious conditions, often involving long neglected cases, require surgery.
Club foot is a silent problem in the country, says Mpunga.
Beit Cure treats nearly 888 patients a year, but the national programme at the hospital sees 256 new patients every three months.
“When people see a child with club foot, they should take them to the nearest district hospital, go straight to the physiotherapy or orthopaedic departments,” he says.
Beit Cure works closely with government and district hospitals where experts are readily available to assist.
The international hospital, situated near Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH), specialises in treating bone-related conditions-including fractures, burns, contractures, limb deformities, chronic infections and other clubfoot.
In fact, adults pay the price so that children can get free treatment.
According to Beit Cure executive director Rob Brown, the hospital has carried out over 15 000 major operations since its inception.
“Every year, the hospital operates for free over 1 000 Malawian children,” he says.
The club foot programme also support thousands families by providing them with assessment, advice, treatment and support through its 20 clinics nationwide.
“Adults pay in order to treat children for free. And 8 000 children have been treated since the programme begun in 2007,” says Brown.