By Sarah Winterburn
Late one evening in July, I found myself descending rapidly in an airplane over the Kathmandu valley. The city looked totally unlike any I had seen before. Walking out onto the heated street, the life of the place struck me. People everywhere. No surface seemed untouched. As I travelled south, rural farmland replaced crowded cityscape – rice paddies and dirt tracks.
WELCOME TO NEPAL
How did I end up here? After a lifetime of hearing stories about Nepal from my parents, who spent the first years of their married lives there, I had been given the opportunity to visit. I would be staying at Lalgadh Hospital – the busiest leprosy hospital in the world – set up by Nepal Leprosy Trust (NLT), a Christian organisation inspired by Jesus’ compassion to serve the poor and sick. Their aim is to empower those affected by leprosy and other disadvantaged people.
Leprosy destroys the life of a patient both physically and socially, so NLT focuses on two primary aspects of the rehabilitation. First, they must deal with the physical illness. Leprosy is caused by bacteria that invade the body and destroy nerve endings. As the body no longer feels pain, injuries go unnoticed, which means that many leprosy patients’ wounds become infected. This, in turn, can lead to serious disability. The doctors in Lalgadh deal with the physical manifestations of leprosy and kill the bacteria. However, even if a patient recovers fully, they must still deal with the social consequences.
In Nepal, many who suffer from leprosy are expelled from their families and communities. They are deeply stigmatised and are often left feeling isolated, disempowered, and depressed. NLT works to reintegrate them into the community. They help patients to set up self-help groups so that those who have had leprosy can look out for one another.
As they work together, they support one another and provide care. The main aim of these groups is to empower people by giving them control over their lives and their rehabilitation. As those in the wider community see the benefits of the self-help groups, barriers are broken down.
I visited villages in the area surrounding Lalgadh Hospital. I saw places that had successful self-help groups as well as villages that had been through a more intensive Village Alive Programme. This focuses on empowering Untouchable (Dalit) villages – communities of people who are on the lowest rung of the Hindu caste system. Those who belong to higher castes literally will not touch these people. They often believe them to be inferior and worthless.
The difference between communities that had been through the programme and those that had not was immense. Before going through the programme, there was a weariness about the people. For generations, their families had lived their lives treated as outcasts, discouraged from attending school, paid minimally for hard labour. They saw no hope of change. Their attitude was generally downcast; the women hid their faces, the men seemed defeated. People had promised help before, but they had never seen real improvement, nor did they expect it.
The atmosphere in villages that have been through the programme is totally different. The women have confidence, a spark of hope. They have seen change in their lives and change in the lives of their children, and they know they have the right to a better standard of living. There is a distinct awareness that their lives are worth just as much as anyone else’s. They are willing to stand up for their children, fighting those who place barriers in the way of their children’s education and future.
Conditions are still poor, but now they have toilets and understand the necessity of good hygiene. They have saved money and have started small businesses. The children still do not have enough to eat, and a euro or two a day remains the standard wage, but they have a vision for the future. The community knows it can change the way its people have lived for generations. They can overcome the label “untouchable”. They must work hard for any future improvements, but they know, crucially, that improvement is possible.
Leaving the children in those villages was hard. It seems such an enormous injustice that they have to fight tooth and nail for things I have taken entirely for granted, like high standards of education. It was in Nepal that I finally understood exactly why education is so important. Without education or training, people must rely on the work of their hands. They are poorly paid and have little control over their lives. Women must remain entirely dependent on their husbands for income. Marriage is essentially a business arrangement for most, a way to create a support structure. If you don’t work in Nepal, you don’t eat. There is no social welfare, no backup if you fall ill. Your children are your pension, your security in your old age.
For three years, NLT Ireland has sponsored students to enable the younger generation to get an education and take control of their lives. I spoke with many of these students, and I was blown away by their drive to improve their lives and the lives of those around them. They have a real vision for their communities, and they are determined not to waste the opportunities they have received.
Janaki Paal became a hero of mine. We are roughly the same age (20), but our lives have been wholly different. Married at 14, Janaki’s husband paid for her to go through school while he could. He developed leprosy after their marriage, however, and due to subsequent disabilities is no longer able to work. They decided together that Janaki should become the main provider of income while he looks after their three-year-old daughter. Janaki is about to start studying pharmacy and is one of the loveliest, most enthusiastic and kind-hearted people I have met.
She has a spark in her eyes that gets bigger and brighter the more she talks of the hope she has – bringing proper healthcare to her community, gaining her own independence, providing for her daughter. There is also a quiet determination within her – she is prepared to endure hardship to get to where she wants to be. She knows she has the power to bring change and she holds to this hope firmly.
This expectation is the real difference I saw from one village to the next, from one person to the next. Hope has a tangible and quantifiable effect. It transforms people. It changes their whole outlook, and this in turn changes how they work and interact with the world. Those who have no hope are downtrodden – beaten down by the world and its incessant demands, problems and hardships. There is an emptiness in their eyes. Those who have hope, however, are fierce. They cling to the possibility that life can get better. They are bright and determined. Hope affects their outlook, their actions and their dreams.
In Ireland, we sometimes feel conflicted about our interaction with those in ‘developing countries’. We want to help but we don’t know how – we don’t trust charities; we don’t want to do more harm than good. The best thing we can do is to give hope to those who have none, to show the love of Jesus to those who have been utterly rejected. We must empower people to take control of their own situations and give them the ability to realise their own dreams. Our burden, our duty is this: that we who have hope must share it with others.
Sarah is originally from Limerick, but spends most of her time these days living in Dublin, where she is studying English and Russian in Trinity College.