Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Critters with Cleft Lip and Palate

It's a little weird to report on a mural project I started way back in February, but thanks to Covid it has been dragging on till now. I've already shared pictures here and there, but now I'm officially done, so here it goes!

February 2020. I was excited to be back in the Land of Eternal Spring. And not just happy to be back in Guatemala, I couldn't wait to get started on the new project by the NGO Tess Unlimited. This organization was set up twelve years ago by Tessa de Goede and it is one of the very best organizations I know in Guatemala. Tessa and her team ensure that children with cleft lip and palate, and there are quite a few in Guatemala, receive free surgeries. It goes way beyond just surgeries because there is also excellent pre and aftercare. Scouting takes place throughout the year in search for new cases. Because babies with clefts cannot always swallow properly, they are often severely malnourished. Through the Tess Unlimited milk program, babies receive special bottles and formula. They are regularly evaluated until they are healthy enough for their surgery. Psychological help is available for parents, if needed. The children are also closely monitored after the operation and some older ones participate in the camps for adolescents with cleft lip and palate.

Until now, Tessa has worked with international teams of specialists in local hospitals. Logistically it's quite time-consuming and it is of course much nicer to have your own, specialized clinic. And that's exactly what had been in the making.

Guatemala might not have as many regulations as other countries, but when it comes to building a clinic, there are an awful lot of rules and special permits to take in account. Painting murals was therefore limited to the recovery rooms and waiting areas. Tessa wanted cute animals on the walls, not a problem at all!

The clinic was not quite finished when I arrived, but the construction workers were mainly working on the second floor. My workspace was on the ground floor away, so although there was still no electricity (but lots of dust, yes!), with a few lamps set up, I had enough light. The first recovery room got some exotic animals. I wanted to do something more than just paint cute animals, so I made them all come out of the wall, as if they were breaking through the wallpaper. Except the giraffe, she secretly lifts a corner of the wallpaper. Even though none of the patients will ever have seen an orangutan or a koala bear, they do have one thing in common, they all have had cleft lip or palate surgery!

The second room got a bit of a Dutch touch with some farm animal and a landscape with windmills above the door, as request by the sponsor Colour4Kids, as a nod to one of the biggest donors for this project.

In the hall between the two recovery rooms, I painted a little boy that had long been on my wish list to use as a model. It's a spectacular photo taken by Tom de Goede of Fernando, one of the ex-patients of Tess Unlimited, with his radiant smile as he pulls up his pants with all his might. When I came across that photo on Facebook, I immediately knew I wanted to paint Fernando one day. And now he's on the wall, with the logo of the clinic on his belly. And wearing Dutch clogs.
After six days of work, the only thing missing were small kaleidoscopes of butterflies all throughout the building, small splashes of colours that would tie the different spaces together. Tessa also insisted on having a seal in the bathroom. But then the first Corona case was registered on March 13, a state of emergency was declared three days later and the world stood still.

So I didn't go home at the end of March, as planned ...

During the first two months after the declaration of a state of emergency, everything just stood still in Guatemala. But after a while things started to move again. A day without work is a day without food for many Guatemalans. The construction workers went back to work in the clinic, albeit with masks and social distancing. In May, Tessa and her team continued to paint the clinic, using the paint donated by Colour4Kids. I went back to paint the seal and make some improvements to Fernando.

Suddenly it was three months later. The clinic is basically finished now and butterflies are swarming all over the building. The first operations are scheduled for April 2021. It will be wonderful to see some patients there!

This project was made possible thanks to the Colour4Kids Foundation that not only financed the murals, but all the paint for the entire clinic. Thanks so much!