Barefoot in Mozambique: Steve’s challenge

Programmes and Advocacy Officer Steve Harknett took the Barefoot Challenge while visiting our projects in Mozambique and found it a great opportunity to tell the people we work with how you’re putting ‘feet first’ this summer.

Barefoot 2A day of being stared at and thought of as ridiculous: that was my experience of the Barefoot Challenge in Mozambique. Many Mozambicans go barefoot in the rural areas, but seeing a white person – the rich, privileged minority in Mozambique – doing likewise was a very rare, unusual sight.

I was in Mozambique for a couple of weeks to prepare for a project The Leprosy Mission is supporting there, helping people affected by leprosy and their communities. To raise money for the project, we’ve been running a campaign called Feet First. Part of this campaign is the Barefoot Challenge, encouraging the public in England to get people to sponsor them to go barefoot for the day. Although I’m based in Africa at the moment, I thought I’d enter into the spirit of things and do my own barefoot challenge. I wanted people affected by leprosy in Mozambique to know what people in England and Wales were doing to raise money for their project.

After breakfast we headed from Namuno, where we were staying, to Katapua, a village about an hour’s drive away through dense forest. Katapua has a community of 25 people affected by leprosy and their families. We have supported this community in a number of ways. Firstly, they have been helped to form a self-care group where they meet regularly to practise foot, hand and eye care to prevent ulcers and disability. A community volunteer provides medical follow-up to the group members. We also give educational support to 17 children of leprosy-affected people, at the local primary school or at a vocational school in a nearby town.

Finally, we have also provided agricultural training for the group members. As well as helping them to increase their yields of maize, it also gives them a greater role in village life, as they advise other villagers on how to improve their yields. The Leprosy Mission’s work in the village is helping people affected by leprosy to move from being social outcasts to respected farmers and leaders.

Barefoot 1As I got out of the car in Katapua village, I realised that going barefoot had completely changed my view about the day – I was seeing every part of the day in terms of what the ground surface there would be, how much walking would be involved, and how much pain or risk of injury it would entail. The first part of the visit was to meet the self-care group, in an outdoor meeting place they’d constructed themselves. This involved a short walk over bare earth – easy and painless to negotiate barefoot. As people were looking at my feet and seemed to be wondering to themselves, I began the meeting by explaining that I was going barefoot for the day to raise awareness in England and Wales about leprosy.

Next I walked to the local primary school, a few hundred metres on quite a rough path with some undergrowth. Every now and then a sharp pain forced me to stop and extract a thorn from my foot. People affected by leprosy wouldn’t feel such pain, and the resulting ulcer could result in serious injury and deformity of their foot. The visit to the school was notable for the reaction of the children – showing none of the reserve and politeness of the adults in the self-care group meeting, the children blatantly stared!

I also went for a walk around the village of Katapua, to meet people from the wider community. This involved a long walk of over a kilometre along the village’s main road, composed of sand (which was burning hot in the afternoon sun) and sharp stones. Surprisingly I didn’t seem to feel much pain, probably because my feet had become numb by this stage of the day! I wanted to meet ‘ordinary’ villagers to ask them what they knew about leprosy, and what they felt about people who had had the disease. It appeared that our work, and the work of the self-care group itself, had raised awareness about leprosy, and there was new social acceptance of people affected by leprosy where once upon a time these people would have suffered from rejection and fear.

Eventually it was time to say goodbye to Katapua. The self-care group had organised a simple but delicious meal for us of fish, vegetables and maize. We said our goodbyes and I made the group laugh by saying that this evening I would do my own self-care session, bathing my feet and checking for wounds!

It was a two-hour drive to our overnight stop at a town called Chiure. It was with relief that I reached my hotel room and had a chance to inspect any damage to my feet. Extremely dirty, yes, with toughened skin (scorched by the walk on the hot sand), but thankfully no blood and no wounds. I dread to think what infections I could have picked up had there been any wounds.

The next day, as we prepared for another day of visiting The Leprosy Mission’s work in Mozambique, putting on shoes felt quite strange and unnecessary. The Barefoot Challenge had been a very interesting experience, giving me a different perspective on life in an African village. Apart from the stares and constantly having to explain why I was barefoot, I’d actually quite enjoyed ‘getting back to nature’.

Why not take the challenge and go barefoot for a day to help make a difference in Mozambique? Every donation you make until 31 August will be doubled by the UK government, meaning it will go twice as far.

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