The gift of a smile

by Colin Macdonald

Addis Ababa is a long way from home and even longer from our mid-sized TV newsroom in Kelowna.  When our crews traveled outside the CHBC newsroom, they usually went about as far as a two-hour drive from the station would take them.  So when I was asked if I’d like to go on assignment to Ethiopia, my first reaction was no reaction at all. I sat there stunned.

I would go to Africa with a group of volunteers from the local service club and tell about their work with the organization Rotaplast.

In 1992, the Rotary Clubs began the Rotaplast organization.  Since then, the humanitarian organization has helped thousands of kids throughout the world born with cleft palates. In my case, the local Rotary Club of the Okanagan Valley raised the funds and provided most of the volunteers for the mission to Ethiopia.  Our volunteers had one week to achieve their goal to change the lives of at least one hundred children.

My decision to go had to be made quickly.  I had no time to apply for a visa or a permit that would allow me to bring the camera into the country.  So, I improvised.  I took my camera apart, bubble-wrapping each piece, and packing it into my hard-side Samsonite carry-on bag. I kept my laptop in my briefcase.  

On the flight to Ethiopia, I had to catch a connection at London’s Heathrow airport.  Here tightened security since 9/11 meant that I could have one piece of carry-on.  Thanks to letters from the Rotary Club and my news director that explained my “humanitarian mission,” I kept the camera with me.

My next hurdle was getting into Ethiopia. Surprisingly, my lack of a visa turned out to be a blessing.  I was completely honest with the woman, who processed my entry.  After playing the “humanitarian mission” card again, I bypassed the long lineups and luggage searches. In fact, the woman personally led me past burly guards and their x-ray machines to a waiting cab.

My honesty paid off because I found out later that the guards confiscated the gear of a large team of boisterous American documentary filmmakers.  They had to fork over a $1,000 in bond money to get their equipment back.  They had to pay overnight storage fees, too.

Thirty-five hours of traveling coach is disorienting.  Because I was too excited to sleep when I arrived, I went straight to the hospital. There I saw three operating rooms full of surgical teams and their young patients. The miracles had already begun.

I shot seven straight days, resulting in seven hours of video.  From that video I told the stories of children whose lives would be forever changed through this simple surgery — an act that would bless them with a brighter future.

The crude conditions, harsh environment, bad lighting and unreliable power sources that seemed so important when I was shooting have now faded into fuzzy memories.  What lingers more clearly was the dedication of the volunteers, the transformation of the patients, and the laughter and joy of the children.

Watch “Saving Smiles, Changing Lives

Colin Macdonald began his broadcasting career by accident more than twenty years ago when he started shooting and editing for a production/post-production company. Gradually, Macdonald picked up freelance photojournalism work that took him to Papua, New Guinea, Nicaragua and Nepal. Nearly eighteen years ago, CHBC-TV in British Columbia hired him. There he has had a hand in just about every aspect of news production.