Being led into a narrow darkened room with a dirt floor, I thought it was empty. Then Adam, our wonderful Community worker at TLM Niger, introduced me to Habsou, a woman so disfigured by the ravages of leprosy, and sat almost hidden in one corner of this room on an old worn rug. She tried to stand up to greet me, but I immediately touched her shoulder to encourage her to remain seated and took up my place sitting with her on the rug.
I was in Danja, a growing village in Maradi district in the south of Niger, to meet people affected by leprosy and hear their stories. Habsou was the worst affected of anyone I had met - facially disfigured and severely disabled and, as she told me, she has recently gone blind. But as she told me her tragic story of being locked away by her family because of leprosy, self-harming and then losing her fingers and toes to leprosy and being forced to beg to survive, the strength of character of this woman to overcome all of this just shone through. When I asked her what her hope was for the future she said "I really hope The Leprosy Mission can help more leprosy affected people earlier so they don't have to become dependent as I am". To be focussed on the needs of others impacted by this horrible disease, when she has so much to deal with herself; I found this deeply humbling.
And as I spent time with Habsou and her small family, I saw the signs of hope that TLM has brought here; the house that we built for her, the chicken that provide eggs, the latrine that provides dignity and sanitation, the seeds that provide vegetables and grain for daily food, however poor it may seem to us. Adam explained that the village is being transformed through livestock and agricultural assistance, paid for by our supporters, enabling people affected by leprosy to be self-sufficient and not need to beg anymore.
There is so much more to do here - in such a poor country with no welfare system and severely limited medical supplies, people affected by leprosy really are at the bottom of the pile. And because of the stigma of leprosy, too many sufferers still stay hidden away and don't get the treatment they desperately need to prevent leprosy causing disability.
But the community at Danja is one that, despite the many tragic stories hidden behind dusty walls, is being lifted out of desperate poverty and despair by the work of Adam and others like him, all funded by our wonderful supporters. And I felt so proud to be a small part of that work, reaching out to the poorest most rejected people in our world and bringing hope and dignity. Habsou told Adam she felt honoured to be visited by people from England. But I was the one to be honoured - to be able to meet such a survivor, share her story and her determination to overcome the worst that leprosy had thrown at her and therefore try to prevent others from suffering as she has done. Honoured indeed.
For more information go to www.leprosymission.org.uk
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