For the last two weeks, one particular session for the Tanzanian portion of our training program had been in the back of my mind, waiting. The itineraries we received in London listed a “Visit to leprosarium,” and we were informed that it was, indeed, a home for those affected by leprosy. I know what you’re thinking, “What does leprosy have to do with malaria?” I’ll address that in a later post. I think the question that is more likely to pop into your head might be, “Leprosy is still around?”
In short, yes. Leprosy is still around, and it still causes much suffering in the world. Not a whole lot, mind you – the World Health Organization estimates that 2 or 3 million people worldwide are permanently disabled by leprosy. The good news: new cases decline with each year. It’s a disease that is on the way out, but it’s not out yet. For that reason, there are communities located around the globe where people with leprosy can seek treatment and, fortunately, solace from a world that in many cases attaches social stigma to those affected by the disease.
We were invited to tour the Nazareth leprosarium, essentially a modern-day “leper colony”. This place wasn’t so much a colony as it was a collection of buildings in Ifakara town here in south central Tanzania, one of the few countries with enough cases of leprosy to necessitate the presence of such a place. We met Enoch, the proprietor of the joint, and he explained to us the various epidemiological features of the disease, the tests employed to diagnose it, and the treatments necessary to cure it. He’s a very funny man, and we learned a great deal about leprosy from him.
Nazareth was built by the local Catholic diocese many, many years ago. Enoch (who’s been there for 25 years) is paid by the district government, but he’s also the only real staff-person; all the other workers are volunteers or employed by the diocese. It has a small chapel on the campus, and is visited twice a month by the local parish priest, Father Mpenge, whose home we had dined at a few days previous. It’s a beautiful example of “faith in action” for reasons that may or may not require explanation.
As we began our tour of the facilities, I knew what we would encounter. Leprosy is a bacterial infection that essentially devours the peripheral nervous system and then starts on the skin. It’s not a pretty illness – opportunistic infections often lead to finger and toe amputation (perhaps even more bones) and massive skin lesions. The facial nerves stop responding so the eyes can’t close. Dust and other debris attack soft optic tissues, causing blindness. We were told to steel ourselves.
The first resident we met, whose name I did not learn, had no fingers or toes. Enoch asked him to join us on the patio and he shuffled over holding a bag slung over one of his destroyed hands. The bag contained a fork, spoon, cup, toothbrush, and comb. Enoch demonstrated the ingenuity of the Sisters at Nazareth – he wrapped a velcro strip around the man’s hand and showed us how he could feed himself, brush his teeth, comb his hair, and drink water by attaching the tools to the strap. The man smiled the whole time and laughed with us. It was a happy encounter.
We spent the next hour visiting the wards and speaking briefly with the people who were staying there. In every new room, I felt welcomed. This was not a place of suffering or worry, it was a home for people who might not have a place to call home. Many of them were severely disabled – imagine having no fingers or feet. But the residents weren’t really helpless. They engaged with us and laughed and opened their home to us. They don’t get many non-family visitors, so we must have been a welcome break in any case! We visited a large garden that provides fresh and healthy food, and we found that many of the volunteers were themselves disabled in one way or another by past encounters with leprosy.
As we walked across the courtyard, an odd thought popped into my head. “Kingdom work” is a phrase that my evangelical friends use to describe a variety of their activities: mission trips, soup kitchens, drug counseling, etc. The idea is that in ministering to those less fortunate, they can hasten the coming of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God on earth. I might say that until that day in the leprosarium known as, of all things, Nazareth, I hadn’t found an example of Kingdom work that resounded deeply with my own drive to help others.
Watching Enoch interact with the residents and seeing them smile as they greeted us brought me to a place of great peace. I can’t accurately describe it; I think I was spiritually excited that Nazareth existed, and I was actually sad to leave. There’s a story in the Bible where Jesus heals a leper by touching him, something that in his age would have been unthinkable (lepers were considered unclean). I’d prefer to let Jesus pick his own timetable for returning, but I’d also like to think that the folks at the Nazareth leprosarium are doing a bit of Kingdom work in creating a safe and healthy place for those who may have nowhere else to go.