The man who changed my mind about coconuts

Kunam with some of the coconuts he is now growing thanks to your support.
Kunam with some of the coconuts he is now growing thanks to your support ©Ruth Towell

On World Food Day, Stuart Towell reflects on a visit to Sri Lanka, where your support is enabling people affected by leprosy to develop sustainable sources of food and income through agriculture. 

There are so many foods that divide people’s opinions: ‘love it or hate it’ foods. Maybe there is one that instantly springs to mind for you. Maybe it’s coriander, olives or blue cheese (all of which I like but that I know people have strong feelings about!). A big contender in my house is mushrooms: my wife’s not a fan, but I love them.

But what does this have to do with coconuts? Today is World Food Day, and it got me thinking about how I’ve had the privilege of being able to travel and try some amazing foods around the world – some that I’ve enjoyed, and some less so, despite people telling me that I was bound to love it.

For me, the best example would be fresh coconuts, specifically fresh coconut water. Many would say that drinking it here in the UK is not the same as having one freshly picked. But for me, even after trying freshly picked coconuts several times while overseas, I just didn’t get the hype.

That changed the day I met Kunam, earlier this year.

Kunam lives in Sri Lanka and is one of the members for the People’s Forum for Change, a group of people affected by leprosy who are campaigning for change across the country to ensure that more people are diagnosed with leprosy and cured – and also to combat the stigma of the disease.

He was diagnosed with leprosy in 2015, when Leprosy Mission staff ran a screening programme in his village. Due to lack of sensation in his leg because of nerve damage, his leg got badly burned by the fire one evening as he slept. As a result of his burn his leg had to be amputated.

Kunam has now been cured of leprosy, as well as taught self-care, so that he can ensure that he doesn’t suffer any further infections or burns. Thanks to your support, he has also been provided with coconut plants and agriculture training so that he can provide for his family.

Kunam's son harvesting coconuts ©Ruth Towell
Kunam’s son harvesting coconuts ©Ruth Towell

As we were getting ready to leave, Kunam motioned to his son, who quickly scaled a palm tree and cut down enough coconuts for everyone to eat. I became a little nervous. One thing is for sure – I did not want to offend Kunam after he had been so generous to us.

Kunam’s son cut the top off the coconut and handed one to me, motioning for me to drink. I raised the coconut to my lips and took a sip. Suddenly my preconceptions about coconuts were blown out of the water. It was completely different to what I was expecting. In fact, it was absolutely delicious.

It turned out this coconut had grown on one of the plants that was originally provided by incredible Leprosy Mission supporters too. It was such a privilege to be able to try one, and to meet Kunam and hear about his life. He is a man that uses his own experiences to help educate others to get treatment before irreversible damage happens.

I left realising that now my mind had changed. I now liked fresh coconuts – and that was all thanks to Kunam.

The power of a Gift

Gifts left in Wills account for a third of our income, funding one in four life-transforming projects. Read on to learn more about Samir, a graduate of Bankura Vocational Training Centre (VTC), who despite being diagnosed with leprosy at 16 has gone on to become a successful businessman.

Blog - Samir and Family
Samir with his family. Photo: Kate Gent

Samir is 36 years old and lives in Bankura, India with his wife and two daughters, aged twelve and four. 20 years ago, when Samir was just 16, he noticed light patches on his skin and was told to go to Hospital. It was there he received the diagnosis – leprosy. As a young boy Samir found his diagnosis embarrassing and was very worried about what the future would hold.

Thankfully, Samir’s leprosy was found and treated at an early stage and so he did not develop any disabilities. After he had completed 2 years of MDT treatment the Government Hospital told him about Bankura Vocational Training Centre (VTC). The VTC provides training to approximately 150 young people affected by leprosy or disability, enabling them to access employment and become financially independent after graduating. Samir took the advice of the Hospital and went to Bankura VTC where he trained to be a mechanic.

Blog - Employee
One of Samir’s employees.

When we visited Samir recently, it was great to see how he has turned his life around. He now runs a thriving motorcycle repair business and employs seven people. Samir said that if he hadn’t had the opportunity to train at Bankura VTC then he would have had to go into cultivation work or would be sitting idle at home.

Samir’s success shows how a small investment in someone can help them transform their lives. Thanks to the training Samir received he was able to set up his own business and is financially independent – something he would not have thought possible when he was diagnosed with leprosy at a young age. He has a total income of 40,000 rupees a month (around £460) and uses 12,000 of this to pay his seven employees. He is already giving training to other students and would like to expand his business as much as possible in the future.

Blog - Employee (2)
Thanks to you Samir’s daughter will be able to grow up free from the devastating effects of leprosy

When asked at Bankura he said, “Bankura is helping people to set up in the community.”

Leaving a gift in your Will can help more people like Samir escape the devastating effects of leprosy, providing hope for the future. For more information please click here.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. Ephesians 3:20-21 (NIV)



Volunteer speakers visit Nepal

The view from Anandaban Hospital
The view from Anandaban Hospital

Jenny Hawke is the youngest daughter of the late Eddie Askew, former General Secretary of The Leprosy Mission International. She’s also a dedicated supporter and volunteer speaker, who is currently visiting Nepal along with other volunteer speakers, accompanied by Regional Manager Mike Griffin. Jenny, a watercolour artist, is painting scenes from everyday life at Anandaban Hospital as part of her Painting a Day fundraising project, and has been telling us about her experiences at Anandaban so far.

“We arrived in Kathmandu late on Sunday night, welcomed by Shovakhar Kandel, the country leader at The Leprosy Mission Nepal. Anandaban Hospital is situated in the foothills of the Himalayas, with ‘Fish Tail Mountain’ (Mount Machhapuchchhre) high in the distant sky. We are surrounded by bright green fields of mustard plants cut into the hillside. Houses cling at odd angles and the river rushes on and on down the valley.

“At the hospital we were overwhelmed by the warmth of the welcome. The loving care given to leprosy-affected people is humbling to experience. There are so many stories, so many lives disrupted by the signs of leprosy, by serious disability, and by stigma and rejection.

“I am completely at home here, and privileged to hear the stories of courage and strength, with no trace of anger or bitterness about hardships endured. There is sadness, yes, but now there is hope.”

Parvati knits while her friend Laxmi holds a hat she has knitted.
Parvati knits while her friend Laxmi holds a hat she has knitted.

“Today I met a 23-year-old woman on the surgical ward. Her name is Parvati and she has a smile that can light up the room. She has lost all fingers and most of both feet. She developed leprosy at 12 years old and living in a remote area of Nepal, didn’t know treatment existed. She continued to work in the fields and at home, gradually developing serious nerve damage in both hands and feet. By chance she heard a message on her radio about treatment for leprosy. She persuaded someone to carry her on their back in a basket to the outpatient clinic, several hours away from her home. At this point she had been unable to walk for six years.

“She was then taken to Anandaban where she has received treatment, as well as specialist shoes which means she will be able to walk again. Sadly though, it is too late for her hands, which have been irreversibly affected by the disease.

“However, in the time Parvati has been at Anandaban, she has learned to read, write and do maths, and has learnt the skill of knitting. Even with her disabilities, she can knit, and she hopes that she will be able to sell the things she makes.

“Another life changed, another story heard. Hope continues to grow in this wonderful place.”

Jenny will continue to update us on the trip as she and the group visit some of our other projects in Nepal.