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African separated twins offer hope for 'little Marias'

Joseph and Luka Banda were separated by surgery in 1997.
Joseph and Luka Banda were separated by surgery in 1997.  

LUSAKA, Zambia (CNN) -- As 1-year-old Guatemalan twins Maria Teresa and Maria de Jesus Alvarez-Quiej, called the "little Marias," recover in California from surgery to separate their joined heads, another set of separated twins -- age 5 -- are living life as best they can in Zambia.

Just one in 200,000 births result in conjoined twins. But Joseph and Luka Banda -- also formerly joined at the head -- are the rarest of conjoined twins -- although they are always the same gender, only one of every three sets is male.

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Separated in a 30-hour operation in 1997, the Bandas like to play with their toys like most 5-year-olds. But unlike normal children, they have artificial skulls to permanently close their heads, fitted last year in South Africa.

Their father says the twins behave very much like their colleagues in pre-school. Luka's grades are very good, they say, but Joseph's development is slow, and neither child "goofs around" like their classmates.

"They like playing with the rest of the kids at home here with the neighbors," said their father, David Banda.

Surgery team sang hymns

Five years ago, at a hospital in South Africa, American neurosurgeon Benjamin Carson lead a team of 50 Zambian and South African specialists in what was dubbed "Operation Impossible" to separate the Bandas.

The team sang hymns to get them through the marathon procedure. "Soon after separation, the babies were seeing each other for the first time," said Dr. Tackson Lambart, of University Teaching Hospital. "Remember their connection, the bodies were in the opposite direction and Joseph pointed to Luka and shouted the name Luka. So it was really amazing, exciting and nobody felt exhausted.

Sophisticated and difficult surgery saved the boys' lives, but their growth and development continues to be threatened by something as common as a cold -- poverty.

Today the twins are still united in play.
Today the twins are still united in play.  

Their father -- who must also provide for the twins' five siblings -- says that no matter how hard he tries he can't find permanent work, forcing him to depend on help from Sister Mary Tukamanya, a Roman Catholic nun who insists the babies' future is bright.

David Banda and his wife Joyce say they hope the future is just as bright for the separated twins recovering in the United States.

"We never knew these children would be alive now, but the doctors have done a wonderful job as you can see," David Banda said. "We encourage the parents of those twins that are in America now to say that they should not lose hope."

CNN Correspondent Cynde Strand contributed to this report.




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