From Casts to Choreography: There’s no looking back for this young dancer
With just 15 minutes to spare before the start of school, ten-year-old Samantha pulls up her long white socks and slips on a pair of shiny black shoes before walking over to the large sound system in the corner of her living room. She presses play, and a moment later breaks out into an elaborately choreographed dance routine.
To say Samantha loves to dance would be an understatement. It is her joy, her passion, and takes up almost all of her time when she’s not in school. With the music blaring, she moves with confidence and precision, each motion flowing perfectly into the next. The vibe is somewhere between Fred Astaire and Michael Jackson.
As Samantha continues to bust out moves, her mother, Chipo, watches proudly from the other side of the room. Ten years ago, after giving birth to Samantha in a hospital in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, she could never have imagined that her daughter would ever be able to walk, let alone dance.
Samantha was born with clubfoot, one of more than 500 Zimbabweans born with the condition each year. Though it’s easily corrected through a simple, non-surgical procedure that involves straightening out the feet with plaster casts, in many low- and middle-income countries it often goes unaddressed due to a lack of awareness and/or lack of access to proper treatment. If untreated, it can lead to lifelong disability.
Chipo had never heard of the condition before and believed her neighbors when they advised her to simply accept that God had given her a child with twisted feet.
“I thought she’d be like that for life.” said Chipo. “On the first day, I cried like nobody’s business. I had already bought her a pair of shoes, but I was told she’d never be able to wear them.”
“At first I wondered if someone had bewitched me, or perhaps I had worked too hard during the pregnancy,” she said. “So I prayed and just hoped it would go away.”
With neighbors and family members warning her against seeking medical help, fearing it would only further distress the baby, it took Chipo four months to build up the courage to take her daughter to the clubfoot clinic at Harare’s Parirenyatwa Hospital. Even then, she did so in secret without telling anyone.
When she returned home with Samantha’s legs covered by plaster casts, neighbors chided her, asking, “why are you bothering your child by putting those things on her legs?”
Chipo did her best to ignore them, and to repress the gnawing doubts in her mind, which grew stronger after the initial weeks of casting failed to effectively straighten Samantha’s feet. Diagnosed with complex clubfoot, it would take another six months of casting before the doctors were finally satisfied.
Yet for Samantha, further challenges lay ahead. For the next four years, she wore a foot abduction brace at night in order to prevent her feet from turning back inwards, and her mother says this took a toll on her self-confidence.
Chipo reassured her constantly, reminding her that she was no different from anybody else, and encouraging her to practice exercising and using her feet as much as possible.
It took time, but eventually, Samantha found her confidence. Then she discovered dancing, and from that day on, she never looked back.
“I practice every day,” says Samantha, who spends hours scouring videos on the internet to pick up new moves and plan new routines. “I dance at home, I dance in church, and I dance in competitions too.”
Samantha’s dance troop recently elected her to be the group’s leader and trainer, a move that seems to be paying off. In their last dance contest, the group finished an impressive fifth out of 35. As Samantha recounts stories of her dance exploits, her mother beams with pride.
As Samantha’s confidence had grown, so too has Chipo’s. Those neighbors and relatives who once castigated her for putting casts on her newborn’s legs now praise her for her determination.
“They say I must be a very strong mother,” says Chipo, who has been volunteering her time to help other parents dealing with clubfoot ever since Samantha’s recovery. As a so-called “Ponseti Guide” for the Zimbabwe Sustainable Clubfoot Program, MiracleFeet’s partner in Zimbabwe and the organization responsible for providing Samantha’s treatment, Chipo travels to the clubfoot clinic once a week to counsel parents and support them through the treatment process.
“I wanted to spread the word to others that this can be treated,” she explains as she puts together a packed lunch for Samantha to take to school. “But I also tell them it’s not a one-day fix. You have to keep on keeping on and never lose hope.”
Even when the family moved out of the city to the distant suburb of Chitungwiza, Chipo continued her work as a Ponseti Guide at Parirenyatwa Hospital, despite the long commute. Her enthusiasm for the work stems from the empathy she feels for parents experiencing the same doubts and fears that she once did.
“When they turn up for the first time they’re often crying. Husbands blame the mothers. Sometimes the families break apart. But I tell them to keep on going. It’s all too easy to just let it be if you’re not strong.”
Chipo says she can’t imagine how different Samantha’s life might be today had she not taken her to the clinic for treatment. As it is, she’s full of hope for her daughter’s future.
“I just want her to achieve everything she wants to,” she says, after dropping Samantha off at school. “I’m the happiest woman in the world.”
Special thanks to Oak Foundation for their generous support of the Zimbabwe clubfoot program.