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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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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Shoeless in London: Lizzy’s Barefoot Challenge

Out and about in London - barefoot!
Out and about in London – barefoot!

Lizzy Standbrook took our Feet First Barefoot Challenge last month. Here, she blogs about her day.

On 1 June I woke up unusually early, in unusual surroundings, ready for an unusual day. I was staying in a hotel in Pimlico ready for the launch of the Leprosy Mission’s Feet First appeal, aimed at preventing disability in Mozambique.

Appeal T-Shirt emblazoned with ‘Barefoot Challenge’, toes painted, and the side of my right foot hashtagged ‘#FeetFirst’, I left my hotel room. I felt purposeful and excited knowing I was going barefoot to be part of something incredible, but I was apprehensive – I only go barefoot outdoors on the beach! What would people think? Would they say anything as I left the hotel?

I was suddenly very aware the hotel was dated, and the carpet… dusty to say the least. I took a snap of my feet to put on Twitter.

There was something about leaving the hotel and being “different on purpose” that made me feel less self-conscious than anticipated. I was looking forward to telling people about Feet First.

Despite a mild June morning, the pavement was very cold. I was very aware of mess, marks and mud, left over kebabs from the night before! I had to walk slowly, and noticed every crack in the pavement, the discomfort of stepping ‘on the lines’.  The bumps at Vauxhall Bridge crossing, for the visually impaired, were totally unavoidable and very painful to walk on.

I smiled at someone walking past. Instead of returning my smile, the guy in a business suit crossed the road to avoid me and my bare feet, sheer embarrassment on his face. I had a sudden, unexpected insight into the experience of someone with leprosy, who may have visible disabilities that mean they are often stigmatised and excluded from their communities. Most wouldn’t meet their eyes either.

Pimlico station and the crowds of the underground were uncomfortable. The escalator’s metal steps (I made a quick video for Facebook); crowds of people rushing to the tube in heavy footwear. People whistling and looking away as I walked past. Finally a barefoot sprint finish at King Cross – just in time for the train!

At the end of the day it was a relief to soak my tired feet. The most surprising feeling of the day was vulnerability – of being unavoidably noticeable, at risk of injury, slow and unsteady, and the process of having to consider every step. The last visit of the day to the supermarket to buy food: “Will they actually let me in?”

Something I will never have to consider again, but something for which someone with leprosy is a daily experience.

Will you take up the challenge like Lizzy and go barefoot for the day to raise money for our Feet First project? Until 31 August, the UK government is matching donations to the campaign, so every £1 donated becomes £2! Don’t miss out on the chance to make twice the difference in Mozambique.

Click to find out more and sign up today.

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