Stopping for the one: my journey in India

Vicki Davison, Partnership Advisor, reflects on her recent visit to India.

My first time in India

“I never knew that a job could give me family around the world. I’ve been working at The Leprosy Mission for nearly two years now and, with my family here, I’ve laughed, cried, learned, and been both humbled and deeply moved. These people are the reason I get out of bed at 7.30 every morning when my alarm goes off…well, if I’m being honest, it’s more like 8am – I’m not a morning person! But it’s my brothers and sisters who are affected by leprosy, and our wonderful team overseas, who challenge, motivate, and inspire me to do what I do every day.

I recently had the privilege of meeting a few members of our worldwide family in person, during my first trip to India. Along with ten of our supporters from the UK, I had an incredible week visiting our projects in Andhra Pradesh. I wanted to share some of my experience with you…

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I’m still processing everything I heard, saw and experienced, but not for the reasons I expected. I’d been told about the vibrant aroma of spice stalls in the market, the vivid blend of colours as women dressed in sarees pass by, and the cacophony of engines revving and horns beeping as motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cars and lorries veer across the road, all vying for space across several lanes of unordered traffic.

I will probably never forget the scenic landscapes of lush rice paddies and tea plantations interspersed with small village communities.

But the images that are truly burned into my mind are the faces of the people I met; it is them and their stories that will have a lasting impact on me.

Rainbow Children’s Home

Our first visit was to Rainbow Children’s Home in Vizianagaram. Many children living in this area are orphaned or abandoned because of leprosy or HIV and have nowhere to go but the railways; they shelter in the stations and scavenge on the tracks. Staying in a station may sound safe, but the conditions there are unimaginable. Human faeces litter the floor and rats infest the platforms. Noise is constant as announcements blare and trains speed past, their carriages banging and clattering. Night time is the worst. As darkness sets in, the children are left vulnerable and unprotected as they try to sleep.

No child should be left in such danger, but for these children there is simply no other choice.

Brighter Future, one of The Leprosy Mission’s partners, responded to the needs of these children by setting up the Rainbow Children’s Home in 2004. There, the team care for 80 children, around 50 of whom are leprosy-affected.

I’d heard stories about the home and seen countless pictures of the children, but nothing compared to being there in person. Although some were shy at first, it wasn’t long before I was surrounded by little ones grasping for my hands, and older girls, still in their uniforms, introducing themselves and telling me about their day at St Ann’s school.

We sat together in their new dining area – a beautifully clean, tiled room – and listened to stories from some of the older children. Many explained how they had first come to the home more than ten years ago and were now studying at college, hoping to one day become teachers, nurses and engineers. As I glanced from the wide-eyed, curious faces of the little ones – some no more than five-years-old – to the young people standing confidently in front of us, it was impossible not to feel inspired.

I was surrounded by so many little lives that had once been written-off and cast aside, but were now filled with hope and potential because of the commitment of the team here, and the incredible generosity of supporters like you.

One boy who stood out to me was six-year-old Raju. Last year, our team found him and his older brother Prashant starving and alone on the streets, abandoned by their family.

A few years ago, their dad was diagnosed with leprosy. When Raju’s mother found out, she deserted her family; none of them have seen her since.

Despite struggling with a disabled foot caused by leprosy, Raju’s father worked as a labourer in the local fields to try and provide for his sons. Tragically, in his sadness he became an alcoholic, spending anything he earned on alcohol and sleeping wherever he fell. Raju and Prashant were left to fend for themselves, wandering naked in the streets and begging for food.

Thankfully, one of our team found them and brought them to the home.

My heart felt heavy listening to Raju’s story. I couldn’t imagine the confusion and heartbreak these two young boys must have felt as their mother disappeared and they watched their father become consumed by alcohol. I could hardly bear to think about their fear as they wandered the streets desperately searching for food, and slept unprotected in the darkness.

Little Raju’s beautiful smile hides a story filled with suffering that no child should ever face, but when we met I saw a sparkle in his eyes. He played confidently with the other kids at the home, and he is regularly attending school with his brother Prashant; they have become inseparable.

Raju told us how he loves school and dreams of one day becoming a pilot.

Thanks to support from people like you, Raju’s next big challenge is not to search for food or try to survive a night on the streets; it is to learn to ride a bike!”

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Raju (left) with his brother Prashant
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Mithu’s journey to a new life

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Mithu in 2013, as an inpatient at Anandaban Hospital, where she was treated for leprosy reaction.

When we met Mithu in 2013, it was four years since she had been diagnosed with leprosy and her journey to Anandaban Hospital had been a long and painful one.

Growing up in a very poor family in a remote area of Nepal, Mithu started work – as a cleaner in a hotel – at the age of 13. She had been working there for two years when she started to develop loss of feeling and swelling in her hands, which soon made her job difficult. The local health centre was not able to offer her any advice. Scared and not knowing who to turn to, Mithu was listening to the radio one day when she heard about a clinic in Surkhet District – and she decided to make the journey there in the hope of finding out what was wrong.

Travelling alone, it took Mithu three days to reach the clinic – two days of walking and a day’s bus journey. She didn’t tell her parents where she was going or what she thought was wrong with her. Then her worst fears were confirmed. Mithu was given multidrug therapy and sent away. She didn’t want to tell her parents about her leprosy, but in the end, she felt forced to. The signs of the disease had become visible – her nose had partially collapsed.

Because she had leprosy, Mithu was asked to leave her job at the hotel and had to return to her village. Once her neighbours found out about it, they began to stigmatise her.

“When I used the common tap or wash area, people would clean it before anyone else would use it. Sometimes I would not go out – I just stayed at home and cried.”

Mithu’s sister-in-law did not even want her in the family home and refused to let her touch her young son.

“Either Mithu leaves this house or I do. I will go home to my parents,” she told the family.

Mithu loved her nephew very much and was hurt that she couldn’t look after him any more. But she would not leave home and in the end, her sister-in-law made the decision to leave instead, only returning when Mithu became an inpatient at Anandaban. She was showing signs of leprosy reaction and was referred there for treatment in 2013.

At Anandaban, Mithu was diagnosed with severe leprosy reaction, which can cause intense pain, skin nodules, fever and nerve damage. It took more than a year to successfully treat the reaction and Mithu was scared about what the future could hold for her.

“At Anandaban I have made friends and have people to talk to. At home I will be alone,” she said. “While I have been away my sister has also been diagnosed with leprosy. I have cried a lot because I think it is my fault and that everyone will blame me. How much blame will I face at home when I go back? I don’t know what I will do.”

Mithu, who had never been to school, was learning to read and attending other education classes at Anandaban. She wasn’t sure what her future held but was reluctant to go back to her village due to the stigma she had faced, even though she missed her family.

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Mithu at Anandaban in 2016, where she now lives and works after finishing treatment.

Recently, we were thrilled to meet Mithu again and hear about the amazing transformation in her life since she first came to Anandaban. Now 22 and completely well, Mithu has had reconstructive surgery on her nose. She’s still living at the hospital, but this time as an employee, with her own home next to the self-care unit where patients learn to look after their leprosy-affected hands and feet.

“I clean, cut the grass, look after the animals and the garden,” she said. “I also help the patients with their self-care.”

Mithu shares her life at Anandaban with another person who has helped her find love and acceptance there – her husband. He is also affected by leprosy and has stayed on at the hospital following treatment to work at the self-care unit. They’ve been married for a year and Mithu smiled widely as she told us about their life together.

It’s clear that her time at the hospital has not only helped Mithu heal physically and emotionally, but has also given her a new purpose in life, new friends and much happiness. It’s what makes Anandaban Hospital such a special place – and why people like Mithu appreciate your support and prayers for The Leprosy Mission’s work in Nepal so much.

Find out more about the projects you support in Nepal.

Jenny’s Nepal blog: Aman’s story

Aman, an 11-year-old boy receiving treatment at Anandaban Hospital.
Aman, an 11-year-old boy receiving treatment at Anandaban Hospital.

Aman is an eleven year old boy I met on the men’s ward on Thursday. He was diagnosed with leprosy about two months ago but has had to be hospitalised due to severe reaction. His body’s immune system has reacted badly to the leprosy bacillus and consequently he has joint and nerve pain, a fever and some paralysis in his hands. His sadness fills the space around him. He lost his father two years ago and has not recovered so to find he is now facing leprosy is a hard blow to bear. His mother has to stay at home to care for his sister so he feels alone here.

But, and as in my last blog, there is always a but, he has been befriended by another older boy, also in much pain, who has seen his loneliness and is trying to help him. He sneaked out of the hospital yesterday and took Aman to the local bazaar for an outing.

And he is having treatment, both to cure the leprosy and to help the reaction. The doctor in charge spoke very movingly to us: “We have little protocol for treating small children, we need the drugs to be effective but do no harm. If they, the patients suffer, I suffer.”

What a place! I have been moved to tears today, and also played and laughed with children in a local village, tripping over chickens and ducks as we played.