An interview with cleft champion, Chelmis Muthoni

An interview with cleft champion, Chelmis MuthoniChelmis Muthoni was born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate in Kenya. She underwent her first surgery at just nine months old, followed by another four procedures later in life.

At 12 years old, Chelmis found herself being bullied at school due to some of the differences in her speech and teeth/jaw structure, which stemmed from her cleft. When Chelmis decided to revisit her surgery at the age of 12, her mother got in touch with Smile Train. She went on to have nine years of orthodontic treatment with one of Smile Train’s partner hospitals and attended one of Smile Train’s Residential Speech Camps, where her speech vastly improved and her confidence was restored.

In an exciting turn of events, this year Chelmis – now aged 26 – will be moving to the UK to attend University, and has also launched her own start-up. Here we hear about her hopes and dreams for the future, and how her cleft journey helped to inspire this: 

Chelmis, we hear that you will be moving to Manchester this year to study Cancer Sciences at University. What inspired this move?

“I have always wanted to pursue a career in medicine and use that knowledge to help people. Some of the people who have inspired me to venture into this field are my mum, who is a nurse, and Dr. Noah, who was my dentist when I was going through orthodontic treatment with Smile Train. The way they both carried out their work inspired – and continues to inspire – me greatly.

“Cancer is one of the greatest health challenges we are facing in the world today, so I felt the need to venture into it and offer my contributions towards its treatment.

“I found Manchester University appealing because of the high-quality research carried out. The bonus is that I get to spend some time in the country that is home to some of the greatest inventors in the world – and enjoy the English culture!”

We also heard that you have been working with a school friend on a new app, which converts sign language into text and spoken voice. Tell us about this?

“My close friend, Roy, has a niece who was born deaf and wanted to find a way to bridge the communication gap between her and the people around her.

“Our new app – called Sign-IO – involves a special pair of gloves being paired to a sign language user’s smartphone, through a mobile companion application. As the sign language user makes various gestures wearing the gloves, a machine learning algorithm translates it to a text which is then vocalised by the mobile phone. This way, a person who doesn’t understand sign language will understand what is being communicated.

“Sign-IO has been developed by a team of three – Roy, myself, and our friend David – and we’re very excited about the impact this technology will have.”

You reached the finals of the prestigious Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation in 2018/2019 with this new app. Was this a challenge?   

“The Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation is an initiative set up by the Royal Academy of Engineering and invites 16 African innovators to take part in an eight-month program of business training.

“Part of the training involved travelling to London to participate in ‘Pitch@Palace Africa’, where I had to deliver a three-minute pitch about Sign-IO in front of HRH The Duke of York.

“Pitch@Palace was the highlight of my experience throughout the entire program. Not only was the pitch nerve-racking because we were pitching in front of The Duke of York, but I was also experiencing a lot of self-doubt as to whether or not my speech would be clear enough for the audience to understand me.

“I’m delighted to say that I won the People’s Choice Award at Pitch@Palace and came second on my pitch. To come second was all the validation I needed and since then, I have never passed up a chance to speak in front of people.”

Do you think that your time with Smile Train’s speech camp helped you to prepare for this?

“Definitely! After my latest procedure in July 2018, my speech massively worsened. I decided to try and retrain my speech using random speech-therapy materials from online, but I was getting nowhere.

“After a couple of weeks of trying to train myself, I found myself on the verge of giving up. It was at this time I received a call about a one-week speech therapy camp by Smile Train, that was taking place the following week – so I signed up to attend.

“I couldn’t believe the progress I made within that week! My speech had not only improved, but it was a lot better than it had been before the surgery.

“Now, every time I talk in front of people, I remember that week fondly – and am so grateful for all the amazing work the speech therapists did.”

What advice would you give to other children who have been born with a cleft, who might be struggling with their confidence?

“My mum used to tell me that ‘Everyone has something different to them. Yours just happens to be on the outside and that makes you special.’

“I would tell other children that they are special and strong, and their uniqueness makes them all the more beautiful.”

Smile Train has been actively supporting programs in Kenya for 18 years. In that time, we have developed local partnerships at 25+ partner hospitals, worked with 35+ active surgeons, and supported more than 9,000+ cleft surgeries.

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