When our Head of Mission Development, Zoe Bunter visited a leprosy hospital in Nigeria last year, she wasn’t prepared for the profound emotional effect the experience would have on her.
This little girl – just 10 years old – was being treated for leprosy.
I was in Nigeria and it was a scorching hot day. I was grateful for the shade as the nurse and I entered the hospital building. We began walking through the men’s ward and then into the women’s, but I was surprised to see a little girl sitting on one of the beds.
At first I thought she was with her mother, the patient, but then I realised I was wrong. It was the other way around. This little girl – just 10 years old – was being treated for leprosy. As I went back to my room that night I felt desperately sad for little Akifah and her family.
It is so desperately unfair and unjust!
After the pain of sadness, sitting there in my room, came anger. Why is this horrific disease still attacking innocent children? Why, when their young lives are already so hard, are they the victims? It is so desperately unfair and unjust!
As I watched Akifah in the ward, I started to think of my own daughter, Molly. She used to love to dress up in her sparkly dressing-up clothes, dancing with abandon in front of the TV when Strictly Come Dancing was on, in the run up to Christmas! Akifah has had this abandon stolen away from her by the effects of leprosy.
Help make Christmas a time to celebrate for all families
This Christmas, give one extra present to that little girl or little boy who will be told they have leprosy today. A generous offering of just £24 could cure a child of leprosy, please click here.
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.
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
‘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.’
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.”
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.”
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.