“Friendship, community and peace.” A visit to Purulia leprosy community

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A resident of Purulia leprosy community. Photo: Hassan Nezamian

For Lent this year, we’re focusing on Purulia Hospital in India and the many people who rely on its services. Here, Head of Mission Development Zoë Bunter reflects on a visit to Purulia leprosy community.

The heat was overwhelming as we climbed out of the air-conditioned car we had travelled in. I glanced around, trying to take it all in. I had never visited a leprosy community before and this one, near Purulia hospital in India, was in a remote location. We had travelled for some time along rough tracks and makeshift roads to get here and now it felt as though we were in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere. Curious faces watched us as we arrived, and the hospital staff greeted old friends and introduced my travel companion and I.

I was on my first trip with the Leprosy Mission back in 2014, to see the work for myself. My travelling companion, Hassan, was a volunteer and a photographer, capturing scenes of our work. We had pulled up in the centre of the community, close to the men’s quarters. The people who lived here looked at us expectantly and I knew I was expected to say something to the 30 or 40 people gathered around us.

The hospital nurse translated. I said how honoured I was to visit them from thousands of miles away, how we would love to spend some time with them, and I asked permission to come into their community for a few hours. Most of all I said I carried love with me – the love and care of people in England and Wales who prayed, gave gifts, and sent messages of encouragement and care.

The community would have once been called a ‘leprosy colony’. The people lived in this isolated place, surrounded by trees, because they had been rejected from the town. Many had severe disabilities and all of them were elderly. My guess is that the youngest person here would have been in their early-seventies, the oldest well into their eighties. They were decades younger when leprosy first took hold, before there was a cure. The disease ravaged their bodies and caused irreversible damage to hands, feet, arms and legs. They were cast out of homes and families, and Purulia took them in.

Residents of Purulia leprosy community. Photo: Hassan Nezamian
Residents of Purulia leprosy community. Photo: Hassan Nezamian

The noise of bird song was almost deafening, as we trudged the five-minute walk through the long grass to where the women lived. Smiles greeted us and women with faces wearing the marks of hard lives welcomed us into their humble homes. Built of brick, each person had their own room to sleep in. But every mealtime all the residents came together in the centre of the community where food was cooked over an open fire. Mealtimes were a social occasion!

The nurse explained about the solar lamps we saw on the buildings. He told us the government had refused to provide electricity to the community so the only light at night was through solar energy. These people weren’t considered important enough to need electricity.

As we walked back to where the food was cooked and where the men lived I was struck by something; love was here in this place.

The hospital staff and residents chatted easily – there was laughter and joking, there was compassion and care. The Purulia Hospital car or minibus would come here to collect those needing hospital treatment, and return them home after they had received medication, recovered from surgery or had ulcers and wounds dressed. But there was also love among this group of very special people. They sat together talking and sharing; together they weaved mattresses or drew water from the water pump. They knew each other like brothers and sisters, a big extended family.

I asked a woman about her life here in the community and she said, with a beaming smile, that she was happy here. Here, she told me, she was with others like her. No hatred, no name-calling. This was her home.

I had come from the UK hearing stories in the news about elderly and frail people struggling with the torment of loneliness. Here there was no such thing. I don’t want to romanticise life in Purulia Leprosy Community, it was clearly a hard life with none of the luxuries that I so easily take for granted. Sores and ulcers were a constant threat, the risk of infection and sepsis was very real. But here I saw love. People thrown together by the hatred of those who didn’t understand had found friendship, community and peace.

As I remember that morning in India, I am challenged by my misconceptions of what will bring me peace. I often think it will be security, nothing to worry about, being able to switch off from anxiety.

But I have seen the ‘surpasses all understanding’ peace that is promised in the Bible alive and well in a place where there is little security and everything to worry about. But what I do know is that this little community in West Bengal, and those who live here, have been bathed in the prayers of the prayer warriors of The Leprosy Mission – in the UK, in the chapel at Purulia Hospital and across the globe.

We do not always realise the power of our prayers, but I have seen the love of God poured out on those whom the world rejected, in loving response to the prayers of the saints.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:6-7 (NIV)

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.

The Nepal earthquake: one year on

Khrishna

April 25 will be a difficult day for the people of Nepal – the first anniversary of the earthquake that claimed more than 9,000 lives and left many more people injured, homeless and without livelihoods.

For people with leprosy, who are often living with the additional challenges of disability and extreme poverty, the earthquake was a particularly heavy blow. But thanks to your generosity and the amazing response to our emergency appeal, as well as this year’s Rebuild Nepal appeal, they now have hope for the future.

In the months following the earthquake, your gifts provided funds and materials to build temporary shelters – a huge relief for those who were forced to live under tarpaulin or even in the open air after losing their homes. You also helped provide emergency treatment at Anandaban Hospital that saved lives and helped people on their road to recovery with surgery, physiotherapy and counselling.

And now, thanks to your ongoing care and compassion, people like Krishna, pictured above with his two sons in front of the ruins of their home, will be able to start moving in to newly built homes after months of living in cold, cramped shelters.

“It would have been impossible for me in this life to build another house for my family,” Krishna said. “I am so grateful to everyone who has helped. I will never forget the care that I got from the staff at The Leprosy Mission. My family will once again have a roof over their heads.”

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A typical temporary shelter in Nepal

Your help over the past year has meant so much to so many people. Here are just a few of their stories.

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Dhurba

Dhurba’s house collapsed during the earthquake – and his wheelchair was crushed by the rubble. After receiving a grant to help he and his family purchase materials to build a temporary shelter, Dhurba was also given a brand new wheelchair.

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Dev (right)

Dev lost her home and only source of income in the earthquake – the goats that were her livelihood were killed by falling buildings. She desperately need a fresh start – she is disabled by leprosy and also primary carer for her husband, who is housebound. Thanks to a grant of 15,000 rupees, she has bought another goat and built a temporary shelter.

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Ganesh, Ganga and their family

Ganesh and his wife Ganga have five children. Their whole village was destroyed in the earthquake. Ganesh was out working in the fields at the time and rushed home, thankfully finding that the rest of the family had been outside when the earthquake hit and were unharmed.

Ganesh has been receiving help from The Leprosy Mission from a long time – ever since he was first diagnosed with the disease at the age of ten. He  needs to wear special footwear and is supplied with shoes by Anandaban Hospital, making sure that his feet are protected from further injury. The family received a grant to build a temporary shelter last year. Now, thanks to your generosity, they will be able to look forward to a new permanent home.

You can still make a difference to people affected by the 2015 earthquakes with a gift to our Rebuild Nepal appeal. Your gifts really are helping to transform lives and bring new hope to Nepal.