Fiona Davidson, TLMNI’s Chairperson, reports back on her visit to Ethiopia last year and explains what motivates her to volunteer with TLM
When I joined the board of The Leprosy Mission NI in September 2012, I had a knowing in my spirit that one day I would be in a leprosy hospital in Africa. Six years on that knowing in my spirit became a real, lived experience.
Joanne Briggs and I arrived at Addis Ababa International Airport at 5.30am on 18 September 2018, just as the sun was rising. Through the glass panels of the terminal building I got my first glimpse of Africa. As Joanne and I waited for the transfer bus to take us to our accommodation, I stood in the airport carpark – not like either that at Aldergrove or George Best City – with passengers, people, taxis and luggage everywhere.
After a short transfer, we arrived at our hotel, the base for TLM’s annual Global Fellowship meeting for the next few days.
Visiting projects and people
By 8am Joanne and I were back in the lobby waiting for our guides from TLM Ethiopia to arrive and escort us on our field trips for the day.
Our first visit was to ALERT hospital, the major leprosy referral hospital for the city and surrounding area. Here, people are diagnosed, receive multi-drug therapy treatment and can be treated as an in-patient for leprosy reactions or reconstructive surgery. Patients can also access physiotherapy and occupational therapy clinics.
The out-patient clinic was in full swing as we arrived. There was no comfortable waiting area for the patients, like we would have in Northern Ireland. However, they were being cared for and afforded all the dignity and respect that health care professionals could offer, even in a challenging physical environment.
Essential surgery and physiotherapy
Our visit enabled us to see the rehabilitative work of the physiotherapy department where a 10-year-old girl was starting her treatment after surgery for a contracture (clawing) of her hand. Both the surgery and the rehab physio are essential to increase her opportunities of completing an education and gaining employment. The burden of lifelong disability for children affected by leprosy is immense and so early treatment is essential to reduce the impact.
As we walked through the hospital corridors, we saw patients waiting to have the ulceration of their feet checked and dressed.
As a chiropodist by training, this part of the hospital’s work is very dear to my heart. Leprosy, attacking as it does the nerve endings in the feet, can leave them numb, meaning that people do not feel pain, injury or infection.
Uniquely-made shoes and sandals
The prosthetic (limb making) and orthotic (footwear making) department, whilst far from a modern facility, was designing bespoke orthopaedic sandals and shoes and artificial limbs for those with below- or above-knee amputations. As we were shown how these were made, I was fascinated by the ingenuity that had led them to create soles for the shoes and sandals out of tyre rubber. The interpreter explained to me that it was the most hard-wearing material around and, I have to admit, it made perfect sense!
As I stood in the warm Ethiopian sunshine that Tuesday morning my heart was heavy with the burden of suffering that these patients were having to carry as a result of the disease but also consoled that here the love of God was being demonstrated in the most practical, healing and restoring of ways.
Our next visit was to ENAPAL (Ethiopia National Association for Persons Affected by Leprosy) to meet the Board members, all of whom are leprosy affected. We were humbled by their coffee-making ceremony to greet us. We toured the Alvra hostel, a shelter for those waiting to be admitted to ALERT hospital who are homeless or have nowhere to stay in the city. TLMNI has supported the hostel by providing food and shelter. Whilst basic, facilities offer a safe place to sleep, wash and eat.
Our last visit of the day was to a weaving and embroidery workshop run by Birke (you can read her story here). Here both women and men affected by leprosy are given the opportunity to learn new skills in thread making, loom weaving and embroidery. The products of which are then sold locally. This integrates leprosy-affected people with the local community and gives them a self-sustaining livelihood. It is almost impossible not to just stand and watch in amazement as someone who has lost fingers on one or both hands spins thread or embroiders.
Showing Jesus’ compassion
In that one day of field visits, I witnessed Jesus’ compassion for people affected by leprosy. It is experiences such as these that serve to make us more committed, more passionate and more loving to people in need. The man with leprosy asked Jesus if he was willing to heal him (Luke 5:12), and Jesus’ response was clear that he was. Today, The Leprosy Mission’s response to that question is the same - we are willing.