By Charlotte Orson
Numbers in India are confusing. Many people have no idea of their date of birth with millions of births going unregistered. Some hazard a guess, often narrowed down to the nearest decade or use a historical event as a yardstick. Older people, for example, will say whether they were born before or after Independence from the British in 1947.
Then there’s distances. Few road signs indicate the number of kilometres to cities/ towns with it varying between a pleasant surprise and disappointment to how long it takes to reach a destination.
Numbers aren’t always a problem though. I was privileged to attend a Christmas celebration at The Leprosy Mission’s Barabanki hospital in Uttar Pradesh. The outpatients hospital – which sees 250 patients a day – hosted a Christmas celebration for volunteers from The Leprosy Mission’s CALL project (Challenging Anti-Leprosy Legislation) and volunteers from a women’s empowerment project funded by TLM New Zealand, as well as hospital staff.
The volunteers from the CALL project are nominated by the leprosy colony where they live and made aware of their human rights by The Leprosy Mission, in order that they can support leprosy-affected people to become integrated in Indian society. It is their job to encourage the community to stand up for their rights, albeit the right to travel on public transport or challenging the Government to accept a young person affected by leprosy on a job training scheme. It seems inconceivable that people cured of a mildly infectious disease can become so marginalised from society but this is the result of age-long stigma and misunderstandings surrounding leprosy.
Although the CALL volunteers are making inroads, there is a long way to go. One member of the leprosy colony we visited on Wednesday actually asked for a wall to be built around the community. They were told by a Leprosy Mission member of staff that the goal is to break down walls as opposed to building new ones. Anyway, the tinsel sparkled in the warm sunshine and it seemed effortless for staff at Barabanki Hospital to provide a hot lunch for 160 guests plus desert and a Christmas gift as a thank you for their support.
While World Health Organisation states that 55 per cent of leprosy cases – more than 100,000 people – are diagnosed in India each year, many people working for The Leprosy Mission believe the figure is closer to 70 per cent. But whether it is 55 or 70 per cent is really irrelevant. This much-feared disease affects and destroys so many families. I visited a family of 11 children living in a slum in Lucknow. The Leprosy Mission was treating the mother and two of the brothers for leprosy at Barabanki Hospital. Despite the endless demand at Barabanki Hospital nobody is turned away. In fact if one member of the family is diagnosed with leprosy, they are told to go home and examine other members for tell-tale patches.
The Leprosy Mission began its work in India in 1874 and has helped hundreds of thousands of people in this wonderful yet largely impoverished country since. There remain hundreds of thousands more who need our help and, one by one, we are reaching them.
Matthew 25: 37-40
‘Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ (NIV)
‘The king will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”‘ (NIV)