lepers help lepers at progressive centre

Mother Teresa is well known for her hospices for the dying. Less famous are the leprosy centres run by her Missionaries of Charity.

Mother Teresa is well known for her hospices for the dying.

Less famous are the leprosy centres run by her Missionaries of Charity. One of these is located in Kolkata, at a place called Titagarh.

Gandhiji Prem Nivas Leprosy Centre stretches along the railway tracks, next to the Titagarh leper colony. The centre provides medical care for patients, but much more as well.

Nearly 1,000 leprosy patients and ex-patients work, eat and live at the centre.

Brother Henry has been with the Missionaries of Charity since 1980. He proudly shows me the centre, which is almost entirely run by leprosy patients, with only a few of Mother Teresa’s brothers.

First, I am taken to the weaving rooms. Busy hand looms line a long narrow hall.

As I walk along, parents of the children at Udayan are pointed out to me, who smile back and greet me with the traditional “nomashkar.”

I can see blue and white saris being woven for Mother Teresa’s sisters, bandages for the clinic, towels, sheets, and all colours of cloth

Further along are the cobblers. Leprosy patients often have large ulcers on their feet, so special shoes are made for them that will allow the ulcers to heal. In the carpentry shop, all the furniture for the centre is made, as well as crutches.

The walls of the artificial limb room are covered in pictures of patients displaying their new limbs.

At the far end of the building, we come back out into the sun and walk back through the garden running alongside. The food grown here is cooked in the kitchen.

Workers and patients take their meals here, as well as many more people from the colony.

Next I am taken through the sick wards. I feel awkward walking through the rooms of hospital beds, but the patients don’t seem to mind, and cheerfully raise their hands in greeting.

Some of them are here for short stays, while others have been crippled by leprosy and are unable to ever return home. Brother Henry tells me that all the people caring for the patients are recovered leprosy patients themselves.

“They know what it’s like,” he says. Unlike many people, they don’t feel revulsion for leprosy sufferers, so they treat the patients with dignity.

Unfortunately, that’s not the sort of treatment the patients receive in other hospitals.

Brother Henry tells me that at government hospitals, staff will hand them medicine through the window.

If operations are needed, leprosy patients will be referred from hospital to hospital so that no one will have to make contact with them. That’s why here at the mission, they do all operations, “except open-heart surgery” Brother Henry tells me proudly.

The next stop is the hostel, a temporary shelter for people whose families have kicked them out.

“They might receive a letter saying, ‘Your daughter is being married’ but if they were to go to the wedding, the groom wouldn’t marry her anymore,” Brother Henry says.

The stigma of leprosy is still a very real problem, though it is improving. Ten years ago, shopkeepers would throw hot water on leprosy patients to chase them away.

Now, things have improved, but still are not good. One woman tells me how she found a room to rent, but three days after she moved in, the landlord discovered she had had leprosy.

In the middle of the night, he threw her and all her belongings out onto the street.

“The people who come to us have physical problems, but also spiritual problems,” Brother Henry tells me. “They feel God has abandoned them and they will not be comforted. Their whole lives are miserable.”

But here at the centre, they have a chance to be welcomed into a community where they can work and live with dignity.

And while it may not be as famous as Mother Teresa’s hospices, one person told me, “It was probably one of the best things she did.”

Whitehorse writer Emily Tredger is currently living and working in India.