India – global superpower or poverty stricken?

Nevertheless there is hope.

By Charlotte Orson in Kolkata

Dr Helen Roberts diagnosing Akash Singh (eight) with leprosy
Dr Helen Roberts diagnosing Akash Singh (eight) with leprosy

I didn’t know what to expect from my first trip to India.  I certainly was aware of the poverty and the fact the country is home to a third of the world’s poor.  But with the media pushing India emerging as a global superpower with its own space programme I was perplexed as to what scenes would greet me.    I needn’t have been puzzled.  Arriving in the centre of Kolkata couldn’t have been more similar to walking onto the film set of Slumdog Millionaire.  (There is an M&S nearby I’ve heard but really cannot picture this.)  The bustling streets of central Kolkata are a kaleidoscope of colour, noise and activity.  Although lined with an array of independent shops, business spills out onto the streets with people cooking, trading, eating, dancing, dressing, shaving and begging while skilfully avoiding the trams, bicycles, rickshaws and swarms of cars all frenetically beeping their horns.  (Am yet to find out what the procedure is in a real horn-beeping emergency.)An Aussie once told me that the Australians tend to divide the English into two categories – those who live in stately homes while the other half settled in more Coronation Street-style housing in back-to-back streets of terraced homes.  In India the contrast between rich and poor is far starker yet coexists side-by -side.Leprosy tends to affect the poorest of the poor and, although only mildly infectious, thrives in confined and squalid conditions.  The disease is so very stigmatised that it is little understood, even by some health workers.  Knowledge of The Leprosy Mission’s Premananda Hospital is hazy for many of Kolkata’s millions.  People often don’t reach the hospital until their bodies are ravaged by the disease.  They are barely able to walk due to nerve damage and subsequent injury to their feet and can be virtually blind as a result of leprosy.  Only then does someone remember Premananda – often dropping them on the doorstep through sheer fear of catching leprosy by entering the hospital.One by one, the unfazed staff at Premananda take these broken people and begin mending them.  Multidrug therapy – simply a course of antibiotics – clears them from disease while medics go about tackling disabilities incurred as a result.  Reconstructive surgery can see a patient walk again and a painstaking procedure of transferring muscles used for chewing to the eye area can see a patient regain their ability to blink, therefore protecting their eyes from further damage and complete blindness.These procedures see patients confined to a hospital bed for weeks.  For those having double sight-saving surgery, it can see their eyes bandaged for a minimum of three weeks while being fed only liquids due to the surgery utilising chewing muscles.  But this is a mere fraction of the time required for emotional healing.   Whether it is being outcast by a family or a sharp comment from a neighbour, all affected by leprosy carry the scars of hurt and rejection.It was with both sadness and joy that I witnessed eight-year-old Akash Singh being diagnosed with leprosy this morning.  Akash lives in a children’s home for youngsters of leprosy-affected parents (interestingly sponsored by Australian cricketer Steve Waugh).  The children usually see their parents in the school holidays but benefit from a safe home and education during term-time.  The youngsters are also monitored for the early tell-tale signs of leprosy and a group of those suspected to have the disease are brought to Premananda Hospital each month.

Today it was Akash’s turn to be told he had leprosy after staff at the home spotted a white patch on his cheek and left thigh.  Happily a course of antibiotics (admittedly taken for six months) will rid him of the disease and he is unlikely to suffer the same consequences as his parents.

The Indian authorities have previously been reluctant to acknowledge the prevalence of leprosy.  Therefore it was encouraging to learn the Government has commissioned The Leprosy Mission to carry out diagnosis and treatment of the disease in 50 out of 144 allocated ‘wards’ in Kolkata in 2013.  Those who cannot be treated in their communities will be picked up and taken to Premananda Hospital for more specialist care.

Let’s pray the Urban Leprosy Programme is successful and will see more patients like Akash being spared the consequences of this cruel disease.

Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes.  For you will spread out to the right and to the left.’ Isaiah 54: 2-3 (NIV)


The Beauty Of Communication

Being able to communicate is crucial in life. Being able to communicate well is a gift and a joy.

Sitting at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport during an unscheduled five hour lay over, I can hear French being spoken softly all around me.  And joy upon joy  I understand most of it.

Over the last week I have had to dig deep into my memory of A-level French to communicate well in Niger.  Yesterday brought the biggest challenge.  Charlotte and I had the privilege of going with the Niger country leader Bunmi and seventeen leprosy-affected people to witness them receive the keys to a new house for each of them and their family.  Brand new purpose built houses on a piece of land on the outskirts of the capital city Niamey that have been funded by TLM England and Wales.

To those of us who live in the West, a two room concrete home situated in a block of four, with outside shower/toilet cubicle and one communal water pump may not seem like much.  Located in an area of red sand dotted with a few trees with locusts buzzing around them, it may even seem like ‘roughing it’ but to the recipients, these houses are a precious gift that filled them with joy.

How do I know this?  Because of communication.

We interviewed several of the proud new owners.  They did not speak French: the language of the educated in Niger. They spoke local dialects of  Hausa and Zarma.  Our interpreter did not speak English so Charlotte posed questions in English, I translated into French, our translator then spoke to the new house owners in Hausa and then translated their responses back into French whereupon I translated back into English.  All this is 43 degree heat at midday.

Never have I enjoyed struggling with my French and being so hot.  The joy that filled the recipients was so uplifting.  No language was needed to interpret the smiles on their faces and the pride in their eyes as they each were allocated a house by the chief of their group.  After inspecting their house, one by one they tried out the new metal water pump, placing metal cups or their cupped hands under the pumped water, laughing like children as they did so.

Possibly the most moving moments came as it was time for the group to be helped back onto the two flat back trucks that had bought them along the bumpy sandy road to the site.   Struggling with damaged hands, many with barely any fingers, each person locked their new house with its key.  And these were not just new houses but first houses.  The first time any of the group had owned a house of their own, amongst a community who valued and supported each other.  No longer would they be at the mercy of a landowner who may evict them from their make shift houses at any time.  Now they each had a home.

Yes, home is a much stronger word than house.  It communicates so much more doesn’t it?  It’s a pity I can only remember the French for house: maison.  I must look up home when I finally return to mine later today.

Locking up his first house, a leprosy affected man in Niger
A low cost housing project brings new hope and new lives to a leprosy affected community

Walkies – Stage 25

Marazion – Porthleven (10.6 miles)
Distance from Minehead – 287.5 miles / Distance to Poole– 344.5 miles

This morning I experienced the wonder of technology as I took part in a live-link-up with my church in Exeter. On what must be the only stretch of the West Cornwall section of the coast path, I had enough mobile phone reception to take part in a service some 110 miles away. This is particularly strange considering that at all other times my Vodafone coverage is weak and patchy at best – it turns out anyone moving to this area quickly changes to Orange for the best coverage….not that this is particularly reliable either – just the best in a bunch of poor reception.

The monument for the Submarine Telegraph Cables near Porthcurno

The problem of poor mobile phone reception, in addition to the impossibility of finding an open internet café on a bank holiday weekend, seems somewhat at odds with the fact that this part of Cornwall was once synonymous with ground breaking communications technology. Two days ago I walked past a white pyramid which signified the terminus of one of many of the submarine communication cables. In fact Porthcurno was the hub of international cable communcations from 1870-1970. But it is black spot for mobile phone signal!

Tomorrow I am due to walk past the monument to Marconi’s first Trans-Atlantic wireless broadcast, which took place in 1901 at Poldhu. Again I am assured that there will be no mobile phone signal.

Finally the whole Lizard Peninsula is dominated by the massive earth station, complete with huge satellite dishes at Goonhilly. This was the spot that the first Trans-Atlantic TV broadcast was received from the USA. I am not holding my breath for any bars of signal on the phone there either.

I saw a woman today stretched out across the path trying to make a call on her mobile. She explained that it was the first time she had any reception so she was making the most of it while she could. I am a little depressed at how often I check my phone or desperately look at my email inbox, inevitably only to find service messages or an advert from Amazon – yet I am ever hopeful. I wonder if in the rush for better and faster communications, be it undersea telegraphs, wireless broadcasts or satellite transmissions, we have mislaid the art of real communication. I have been surprised at how many people along the path are ready to stop and chat – complete strangers who perhaps have not seen anyone else for a while, desperate for some kind of interaction with humanity. With no TV, radio, internet or mobile phone reception along the path, they reach out to other walkers. It is easy to spot them, it is easy to stop and chat (whilst often also catching my breath!) and it is nearly always a positive experience. In the hectic mayhem of ‘normal’ life I dread to think how many people who are also desperate for human contact and interaction, are overlooked and left in silence. Perhaps today is the day to stop obsessively checking your emails (the Amazon offers can wait!) and go and chat to someone real for a change.