We came unprepared and unaware. We wereseven people; black, white, young and old. We were 8,139 miles from homein a leper colony in the heart of India. The disfigured creatures in thehuts scared us half to death, but unleashed compassion we didn’tknow we possessed. We struggled to look them in the eye. It wasdifficult to speak to them since our Malayalam was limited.
Thiscolony was a place where people who had contracted leprosy were isolatedfrom society to prevent its spread. Leprosy has afflicted everycontinent and is a terrifying disease of mutilation, rejection, andexclusion. It is caused by the bacillus Mycobacterium leprae and affectsthe skin, peripheral nerves, respiratory tract, and eyes, causing theskin and extremities to deteriorate. Lepers first lose their fingers andtoes, then their arms and legs. Many believe it no longer exists sincethere is a cure, but according to the World Health Organization, over470,000 cases were reported last year. The trouble is that the suffererslive in less developed areas where they are crammed into small cabinsand do not have the resources to get medicine.
We were therewith Crossroads Ministries to visit and give them some food: loaves ofbread and pineapples were all we had to offer. But it was nothing small.Many were severely emaciated due to hunger and disease. We walkedthrough each cabin helping in whatever way we could. One woman cried outand the translator repeated her words, “Pray for me because I amabout to die.” Some from our group of well-dressed Americans werein tears.
I went from leper to leper shaking hands, giving hugs,and smiling as much as I could. None was angry with us, though I wouldhave been. We had clothes and money, friends and family, while they hadonly a wooden bed and an empty food bowl. I was ashamed; they must nothave understood how selfish I actually was.
The first woman Iapproached was sitting up. She looked like my grandmother. She held upher hands and I saw her stubs of fingers. She raised her eyebrows as ifto say, “look.” She wanted to show me what was happening toher. Her arms and legs were as thin as broomsticks. She wanted me tohelp, but I couldn’t. I hugged her and began to pray aloud. Idon’t remember how I prayed and it probably didn’t makesense. I wanted her not to hurt, to feel whole and happy. I wanted herto escape the dreadful cabin that reeked of rotting flesh.
Wewalked through the sunlight from shelter to shelter touching as manylepers as we could, since they may never be touched by anyone again. Anurse told us that even their families eventually stop visiting. Leprosycauses tremendous physical and emotional pain.
We were somewhatsafe from contracting leprosy because it cannot be transferred unless anopen wound comes in contact with skin. It was not too difficult to tellopen wounds from those that had healed, and the majority of thedisfigurations had healed. For those we couldn’t touch, we playedmusic.
I had my djembe with me, a bongo drum with Africandesigns. I clung to it tightly, my knuckles white. Many who werestricken would reach out and try to play it. I admit that at first I didnot want them to touch it. I was scared of their disease and thought Iwould never be able to touch my djembe again. One man sat on a cartbecause his legs were gone, but he had the most genuine smile I’veever seen. I leaned down and let him hit the middle of my drum. Ididn’t think it possible, but his smile grew wider. When I saw howhappy it made him, I didn’t hesitate to let others find joy in itssimple sounds.
We tried as best we could to make these peoplehappy, which wasn’t difficult. They all smiled broadly when theysaw us and tried to move to get our attention so that we would approachthem. Many laughed; they were excited to see us. It brought me joy toknow that my mere presence was enough to make them happy.
Myfriend had his guitar so we played some songs, including “BlessedBe the Lord,” which tells us to stay true to our God in the faceof loss. Our translator explained the song to them and some tried tosing along even though they didn’t speak English. It was difficultfor me to understand. It would seem hypocritical - even offensive - fora bunch of American punks to say that we will bless the Lord when thingsare taken from us. These people really knew about loss. For us, loss isa job or car keys while loss to them is their fingers and toes, family,friends, everything except life, and even that will eventually be takenby this disease.
I walked by a man lying on his bed and facingthe wall, his body emaciated. It seemed as if he hadn’t seen orheard us. More likely, he could not move. I wanted to touch him and prayfor him, but he was covered with oozing sores. He wore nothing but acloth draped over his shoulder and flies swarmed around him. I wonderedif he were even alive. Should I risk touching him and let him knowsomeone cared, or protect myself and let him face the wall and hope hewas not aware of my presence? I prayed for him, then walked on. I mayhave missed an opportunity I will regret, or God may have answered myprayer for him, and it was not in vain.
In the cabins we sawpictures of the Pope, Muhammad, Jesus, and other symbols of religiousbelief. It makes sense to me that these people would search for hopefrom a higher power. We sometimes blame God for our worst problems, andthen don’t believe He can fix them.
It is important toremember that this situation still exists. Right now, there are peoplelying in wooden beds in India suffering from leprosy. Their pain did notstop when I came home. As I sit comfortably in America, and as you readthis, they are still suffering. It is almost impossible to have thesepeople constantly on my mind.
There are endless ways to helpothers around the world. Finding them is not hard. If everyone realizedthey actually can make a difference, I’m convinced more would behelped.
Before I went to India, I didn’t think I wouldever be able to do anything productive for those in need. But I did. Wecan. And there is no question that we should. Gandhi once said,“The difference between what we do and what we are capable ofdoing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems.”
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the October 2006 Teen Ink Community Service Contest.