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

Good news for leprosy communities in Nigeria

‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

Luke 4:18-19

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Imad stands among his crops, grown thanks to agricultural training and a new well.

Imad came to live at Ammanawa leprosy community in Sokoto, Nigeria not long after developing symptoms of the disease in 1979. The community has grown up around the local hospital and his neighbours told him it would be the best place for him to go to get help.

Fortunately, completing his course of medication combined with diligent self-care of his hands and feet has meant that Imad, now 67, is free of disability. But even this did not stop people stigmatising him – prejudice against people affected by leprosy in his village was strong, so Imad stayed on at Ammanawa and has been there ever since – marrying, raising a family and farming on land near the hospital.

In this notoriously dry area of northern Nigeria, farming isn’t easy and families like Imad’s have often struggled to grow crops successfully. For an already-marginalised community like Ammanawa, that means greater poverty and uncertainty about having enough food.

This year, however, residents have seen some enormous changes take place, as part of a new project focusing on improving the lives of people living in leprosy communities.

“When I arrived at Ammanawa, I was amazed to see how people’s lives are being transformed,” said Programmes and Advocacy Officer Gareth Shrubsole, who visited Nigeria recently.

“We don’t often hear good news coming out of northern Nigeria and it is challenging place to work in, but in this project I really saw the scripture of Luke 4:18-19 being brought to life.

“The good news is that people are learning to farm their land to grow food and generate an income; those imprisoned by disabilities are getting freedom through provision of wheelchairs, crutches and prosthetic limbs; the blind are recovering their sight through cataract operations.

“What’s more, those who have been oppressed by leprosy stigma are being released as greater awareness is spread about the real causes of leprosy and people affected by it are empowered to speak out against stigma.”

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Imad at his new well.

In addition to learning more about farming, Imad has found his life revolutionised by a new tube well. The result is that, helped by his sons, he’s now growing numerous different crops – an impressive feat on land that is known for being so dry and difficult to farm.

“People like Imad are now benefiting from better hygiene and clean water thanks to new boreholes and latrines too. The Leprosy Mission team working in the area are doing wonderful work and it was a real privilege to be able to see it firsthand,”said Gareth.

“As I talked to Imad, it was wonderful to see the range of crops – fat onions, bright red chillies, sturdy cassava, and many more – that he has been able to nurture in this often barren land. It’s all thanks to the water supply from his new tube-well and his training in farming techniques.”

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Working the land.

It’s all thanks to your support and prayers that people like Imad are acquiring the new skills and resources they need to live life to the full – and it’s a huge encouragement to see the way people living in communities like Ammanawa have seen their lives turned around in the past year.

Binta, a woman severely disabled by leprosy, who is receiving help from Chanchaga Orthopaedic Workshop in Nigeria.

A visit to Chanchaga Orthopaedic Workshop

Binta, a woman severely disabled by leprosy, who is receiving help from Chanchaga Orthopaedic Workshop  in Nigeria.
Binta, a woman severely disabled by leprosy, who is receiving help from Chanchaga Orthopaedic Workshop in Nigeria.

Steve Harknett, Programmes Officer for Africa, writes about his trip to Nigeria at the end of 2013.

‘Physical rehabilitation’: rather a dry-sounding, medical term, but one which conceals the wonderful service that is really is. Rehabilitation is actually restoration – restoring basic abilities to people who have lost them through leprosy or other disability. It’s restoration of their God-given dignity and their ability to do all the things in life that most of us take for granted.

This became very apparent to me during my recent visit to the Chanchaga Orthopaedic Workshop in Nigeria, which we have been supporting for the last year. Chanchaga is one of the few functioning rehabilitation workshops in the country, providing orthopaedic and mobility aids, including prosthetic limbs, orthotics, adapted shoes, crutches and wheelchairs, to people affected by leprosy.

These services are expensive and there’s need for people affected by leprosy, who are often among the poorest of the poor, to be helped to receive these services. We work with TLM Nigeria to ensure that such services are delivered to people affected by leprosy in eight states of the country.

I met several of the workshop’s beneficiaries during my visit. One woman, Binta, was at the nearby leprosy hospital getting treatment for ulcers on her right leg. Ulcers had already led to her left leg being amputated, and now her right leg also needed amputating. Binta is unable to walk at all, and can only move around by dragging herself around on the ground, getting dirty and increasing the risk of infections in the process. Everyday tasks such as going to the toilet are a tremendous ordeal for her. It’s hard to imagine a more undignified way of living.

Binta and her husband Hassan, who also has leprosy and walks with crutches, have four young children, only one of whom is in school. Binta is unable to do all the things a mother would normally do for her children, which forces the children to do domestic work and miss school as a result. Having such a severely disabled mother brings shame upon the children, and other children in the village call them ‘the leprosy children’.

Binta asked for financial assistance for the amputation operation, which is far too expensive for the family to afford. Following the operation, the Orthopaedic Workshop will give her a wheelchair. By restoring her ability to move around off the ground, the wheelchair will help keep Binta clean and avoid further health complications, and enable her to do more domestic work herself, taking some workload off her children. This will enable her to hold her head high in her community.

There are so few orthopaedic workshops in Nigeria and the reputation of Chanchaga has spread, so that other disabled people, not just those affected by leprosy, have also started coming. One such person is Yousif, a young man whose leg was amputated following a football accident. Yes, that’s right – he lost his leg through playing football. He broke his leg, and rather than seeking help from professional medical services he sought treatment from a traditional healer. The healer’s negligence caused the leg to go septic and it needed amputation to save Yousif’s life.

Yousif, whose life has been transformed by an artificial leg.
Yousif, whose life has been transformed by an artificial leg.

This young man, so proud of his physical ability and sporting achievements, has had his sporting career needlessly cut short. Everything is difficult to do when you’re an amputee, Yousif told me, plus there’s the stigma of looking different. But now with his artificial limb Yousif looks and walks like any other young man. “You would never know he had this accident,” his friend told me proudly. His pride and dignity now restored, he can now start hoping for the future again – completing his studies and marriage are on the horizon.

Nigeria is a country from where we hear so much bad news – much of the north of the country is under a state of emergency, leading to many deaths and a tragic breakdown of relations between the country’s Christian and Muslim communities, so we must pray for peace and reconciliation in this troubled nation. But we must also give thanks that The Leprosy Mission is providing a valuable service of restoration to people like Binta and Yousif, restoring their ability to walk and to move, their dignity as human beings in God’s image, and their hope for a better life in the future.