The least of these

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Ali has suffered a lot of stigma as a result of leprosy. The damage the disease has caused to his hands means he can not work.

Regional Manager Jarrett Wilson reflects on his recent visit to Nigeria.

Imagine a destitute community with unsafe buildings amidst uncollected rubbish, ravaged by unemployment and disease. The air is heavy, thick with heat. Dust kicks up as motorcycles travel past uneven, pothole-riddled lanes. Behind the haze are similarly dishevelled houses, banked onto decaying slopes. There are piles of litter everywhere, while streams of dirty water snake through junctions and behind walled corners. Wherever water and rubbish meet, stray dogs come panting for relief from the relentless heat as they scavenge restlessly.

That’s Dakoko, a slum neighbourhood in Minna, Nigeria, where people affected by leprosy strive to live alongside those without the disease, themselves marginalised and outcast.

But no-one wants to eat the food they cook, and few make any attempt to bridge the divide and befriend someone with leprosy. Those living here with this disease are outcasts in a community of outcasts, another example of how we see, again and again, that people affected by leprosy are the poorest of the poor.

Zachary, whose 50 years of living with leprosy have left him severely disabled.
Zachary, whose 50 years of living with leprosy have left him severely disabled.

Among them sits a 70-year-old man, sheltered in the dark of his tiny home. His name is Zachary, and he has been afflicted with leprosy since the 1960s. Cured of the disease, but with no sensitivity in his extremities, the ravages of the bacteria are evident in the stumps ending each of his arms and legs. Zachary no longer has any fingers. His feet are gone. His ulcers slowly weep into thick bandages, prepared and regularly applied by Leprosy Mission staff.

Beside him sits one of his only friends, Ali, who is also affected by leprosy. His hands are clawed, making it difficult for him to work, but he has newfound purpose as informal carer for Zachary. Now in his 40s, leprosy snatched his life as a herdsman away. Friends shunned him. His wife deserted him.

The Leprosy Mission came to his aid and cured him of the disease, but they are still working daily to help his sense of despair and prevent his disabled hands and feet from developing further problems.

Sitting before them both, the temptation is to feel numb, to succumb to the same cynicism sometimes encountered when leprosy callously steals one’s opportunities and ambitions. There is no ‘quick fix’ for their problems. But to give into cynicism would betray Jesus, whose face appears so starkly and formidably on the faces of Zachary and Ali. The words of Jesus, recorded in Matthew 25:40, offer a challenging corrective: ‘whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’.

We choose to look into the faces of Zachary and Ali, and to see Christ. In that moment, the heat and dirt, the sweat and grime condense into a fixed point, claimed by and for Christ. When as we clothe and feed and visit and care for these neglected among neglected, we do it for Jesus.

In a tiny, dark corner of Dakoko, the healing ministry of Jesus is being birthed again.

As you pray this week, please remember Zachary and Ali and pray

  • that people affected by leprosy in places like Dakoko are embraced by the communities in which they live
  • that The Leprosy Mission would encounter open doors to bring education and awareness to marginalised communities about the facts of leprosy, raising awareness and combating stigma
  • that all work carried out by staff and volunteers there would demonstrate the love of Jesus

He’s only seven years old, but already Anil has faced so much.

Programmes Officer Shabina Sadiq found her first visit to Leprosy Mission projects in Sri Lanka to be a deeply affecting experience. Read on as she tells her story.

My trip to Sri Lanka was my first overseas visit since starting work at The Leprosy Mission this year. I knew it would be eye-opening, but I’m not sure I was prepared for just how much it would affect me.

One of the key people I met on the trip was Rev Joshua, director of Kaveri Kala Manram (KKM), one of our partner organisations in Sri Lanka. He took us on a visit to a small village called Kristokulam to meet the residents, many of whom are affected by leprosy. While there, we were introduced to Diaya – a teacher at the local school – and some of her students.

Diaya started to tell us a little about what life is like for children in Kristokulam. She explained that around half the children in her class of 34 students have been diagnosed with leprosy – a shocking statistic even in Sri Lanka, which in 2015 had the highest rates of new child cases of leprosy of any country in the world*. Then, she introduced us to Anil, a seven-year-old boy who has recently been diagnosed with the disease.

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Anil (centre), with his friend Kulendran and their teacher, Diaya.

Anil was a shy boy who kept looking at his feet as he constantly touched at the leprosy patch on his face – a patch of lightened skin that he was obviously very self-conscious about. It struck me how thin he was, so we asked Diaya whether the children were getting enough to eat.

“Their families don’t have enough food,” she told us, “So they might only be eating one meal a day.”

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Radhika, 14, is currently taking multidrug therapy (MDT) and is fortunate to have no lasting physical effects unlike her grandparents, who are both severely disabled by leprosy.

The school has been trying to help the children by providing them with a meal of lentils every day but I was shocked to see how small a portion they were being given. It’s all the school can afford.

“Malnutrition and leprosy make the children constantly weak and tired,” said Diaya. “They’re unable to concentrate in class and it affects their learning.”

Many of the children are taking multidrug therapy (MDT) to cure their leprosy. They need to be strong so their bodies can fight the disease and that means they need good nutrition. But with food as scarce as it is, that’s not easy.

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Kulendran, who is also seven years old and in Anil’s class. He’s currently taking multidrug therapy to cure his leprosy. His father is also affected by the disease.

Like many children in the region, Anil’s father went missing during Sri Lanka’s recent civil conflict and has never returned. Rev Joshua told us that Anil continues to be deeply affected by this. When I asked Anil about his hopes for the future he explained that he wants to be a policeman because he then might one day be able to find his dad.

It broke my heart to hear what had happened to Anil when he was diagnosed with leprosy: his mother and stepfather completed rejected him and threw him out of the house. I’m very close to my young nephews and it upset me so much to think of what it would be like for them to be shunned by their own family.

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Anil and his grandfather

Thankfully, Anil’s grandparents took him in and are doing the best they can for him, but life is hard for them. His grandmother is disabled as a result of leprosy so she finds it difficult to carry out everyday tasks like cooking. They have no income – and so every day Anil relies on the small meal from the school food programme.

That’s why, this winter, you can do something amazing for Anil and children like him. We want to provide them with parcels containing food packed with essential nutrients that will help them grow strong as they take the medication they need to cure their leprosy.

It costs just £7.50 to buy a food parcel lasting a month – an opportunity to start making a huge difference in the life of a child like Anil. We need to act now to ensure a brighter future for these children. They urgently need our help.

I left Kristokulam with a heavy heart. There is so much more than leprosy affecting children like Anil – hunger, rejection, the loss of loved ones. In just seven years Anil has had to go through so much. But together, we can help him and his classmates turn their lives around.

*WHO statistics

With use of her hand restored, Kyrah has big dreams for the future.

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14-year-old Kyrah has had reconstructive surgery at Anandaban Hospital

Trusts Relationship Officer Vicki Davison recently made her first visit overseas to see how you’re making a difference to people in Nepal. One of the patients she met at Anandaban Hospital was Kyrah.

My first time visiting Anandaban Hospital has been an incredible experience – both eye-opening and encouraging. I’ve been working at The Leprosy Mission England and Wales for six months now and have heard many inspiring stories of people who have been treated at Anandaban Hospital. I have also heard many reports about the staff at the hospital – their skill, expertise and genuine care and compassion for their patients.

As I climbed the 365 steps – in close to 30 degree heat and 90% humidity – from the centre where I was staying to the hospital building itself, I thought about the stories I’d been told and felt excited to visit such an amazing place. But I had no idea how touched I would be by this ‘home from home’ for patients and the incredible people who work there.

While visiting one of the wards, I met a girl called Kyrah. She stood out to me straight away. Aged 14, she is a small girl with a big, beaming smile and compassion for others that radiates from her and shows itself in everything she does.

Sat on a balcony that overlooks the lush, green hills that characterise Nepal, I chatted to Kyrah while she played with two younger children and decorated a colouring book.

It quickly became clear that Kyrah’s time at Anandaban has truly changed her life; not only has she found healing and restoration, she has also discovered new dreams for her future.

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Kyrah with her father, Binsa

Kyrah lives with her mother and father, Binsa, who is a farmer. Binsa was diagnosed with leprosy 14 years ago and was given multi-drug therapy for 2 years to cure him, but the treatment came too late. Leprosy had already damaged the nerves to his left hand and he lost all feeling in it. His hand became clawed as his fingers and thumb bent back and pointed towards his palms. When his family found out he had been diagnosed with leprosy, his sister-in-law refused to eat in the same room as him – she was scared she would catch it.

Sadly, Kyrah also developed leprosy; she was diagnosed six years ago when she was eight years old. Just like her father, leprosy caused Kyrah’s right hand to lose feeling and become clawed.

Both Binsa and Kyrah have had tendon transfer operations at Anandaban, just days apart. Binsa can now straighten his fingers and grip objects with his whole hand again – his work as a farmer will be so much easier and safer now.

The mobility in Kyrah’s thumb has been restored and, when she has healed, she will have a second operation that should give her back the movement in her fingers.  Before the operation, Kyrah struggled to do everyday tasks and couldn’t pick up objects. Now she can hold a pen and write – imagine how much better her hand will be when she’s had the second operation.

Kyrah’s experience at Anandaban has given her so much more than the joy of being able to use her hand again – it has given her new aspirations for her future. When I asked her whether she has plans for after school her face lit up, excited to tell me.

She explained how she has loved her time at the hospital so much that she now wants to become a social worker so she can help leprosy-affected people. From spending just a few minutes with her, I was sure this would be the perfect choice for Kyrah. The care and kindness she shows the other patients warms everyone around her, and I know she will bring this same joy to the people she works with in the future.

The day I met Kyrah was her last on the ward – she was due to be discharged for a few weeks before returning for her final operation. When she told me this her smile faded – she didn’t want to leave Anandaban. She said that she will really miss the staff and she feels she has found a home here. As sad as this is for Kyrah, I’m excited for her, for her next steps. Soon, she will have completed her treatment and will continue with school. She is applying for a scholarship from Anandaban to support her with her education.

One day, I’m convinced that she will be a brilliant social worker and an inspiration and encouragement to the leprosy-affected people she helps.