Feet First one year on: 5,000 lives changed

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Steve Besford (left) with staff from Food for the Hungry, The Leprosy Mission’s partner in the Feet First project.

Steve Besford is our Programmes and Advocacy Officer for Africa. We asked him a few questions about his most recent trip to Mozambique and how you’re helping people there following your overwhelming response to our Feet First campaign last summer, where every gift was doubled by the UK government.

Mozambique has been a special place for you for a long time, hasn’t it?

Yes – every time I have to visit Mozambique I’m just so delighted to be back. I first went to work there in 2002 when I was taking a year’s sabbatical from my job in the aviation industry. I worked in an orphanage, with an organisation called Maforga. It was a life-changing year for me, not least because I met my wife there. She was also working at the orphanage, as a nurse. After some time back in the UK we moved back to Mozambique, this time with our children.

I’ve been based in the UK again since 2010 and was looking for an opportunity to use the expertise I gained working in Mozambique in a UK context. So when I saw my current job at The Leprosy Mission advertised it seemed like the perfect opportunity. I really believe God led me to the organisation.

What was the purpose of your latest visit to Mozambique?

I went to visit the small team of staff and the communities that have been helped by UK supporters in three areas – Macomia, Chiure and Pemba. The trip also involved taking part in training workshops and teaching project support officers more about leprosy signs, symptoms and treatment. These are local people who really initiate change across the communities in which we work.

What’s life like for people living in the places you visited?

There is terrible poverty. For several months of the year – the ‘hungry months’ – people don’t know where their next meal will come from. Sanitation is lacking and drinking water is often filthy, which as you can imagine makes sickness very common. Construction of houses is very basic, which means that heavy rains can cause them to collapse. The culture is very much based around the extended family – everyone looking out for each other. Community is so important.

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Residents of a village in Cabo Delgado province. Photo: Paul Salmon.

How much of a problem is leprosy?

Cabo Delgado province, where much of The Leprosy Mission’s work is, has the highest prevalence of the disease in the whole country. It’s common to see people with clawed hands and missing toes and stigma is sadly still a huge issue. People still hide the symptoms of leprosy because they’re afraid of the prejudice they know they could experience. We’re doing all we can to change this, but it takes a long time to change deeply-held beliefs.

How has the Feet First project been making a difference so far?

Leprosy Mission staff in Mozambique are thrilled that people in the UK are enabling them to work with so many leprosy-affected communities. Leprosy is endemic in 11 out of 16 districts in Cabo Delgado so a lot of help is needed but thanks to gifts to our Feet First appeal, more than 5,000 people have benefited from the project so far in various different ways, including disability care and ulcer treatment.

We have worked with people to set up savings groups, where members pool their savings, creating a fund that they can apply to for credit if they want to set up a small business or buy new farming tools and seeds, for example. Once they have paid back the loan, the money is available for someone else to borrow.

Feet First is also training people in new agricultural techniques to improve crop yields. As more people in the communities we’re helping see their leprosy-affected neighbours benefiting from better harvests, we’re hoping that even more people will get on board, giving greater food security for everyone.

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Members of a savings group in Mozambique learn about money management and how savings can be used as microcredit to improve their lives. Photo: Paul Salmon

And what about leprosy detection? Are many people being newly diagnosed?

Yes. A new mapping initiative has already seen 80 new cases of leprosy diagnosed and treated. People are also being diagnosed due to greater awareness of symptoms. I talked to one couple who, as a result of leprosy awareness training in their village, spotted that their 18-year-old daughter had a lighter patch on her skin – one of the first signs of the disease. They took her to the local health centre where she was diagnosed and given the cure. Cases like this are such a huge step forward. Whereas once they might have been afraid for their daughter and reluctant to be seen to be going to the clinic, they now know that early treatment is the best option.

You took piles of ‘prayer feet’ decorated by UK supporters last summer on your trip. What was people’s reaction to receiving them?

They were touched that so many people so far away were thinking of and praying for them. Many people asked me to say ‘thank you’ on their behalf. I also took a ‘map’ of Mozambique decorated with prayers and messages to the Leprosy Mission office where it’s now hanging on the wall.

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Prayer feet’ decorated with messages by people in the UK last summer.

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