Learning to tell their stories: visit to a leprosy colony

ImageIn addition to my work at the WHO I have been trying to hone my journalistic skills. At this point, that means doing what I do best: talk with people. Rickshaw drivers, my colleagues, fellow train passengers, chai wallahs, doctors…anyone and everyone. I spent an entire 2 hour car ride this weekend discussing bribes and corruption in the healthcare system with our driver. Today I stopped someone for directions…and spent 15 minutes talking about healthy eating choices at universities. It’s great. Instead of just being a really friendly chatterbox I can now blame my verboseness on “journalism.”

In service of this, I headed out on assignment last week. I’m going to be writing a few stories for an Indian newspaper called The Hindu. My first article? Leprosy of course. I almost laughed when they told me- I feel like I’m finding a niche. In search of a new angle I met up with Meeta, a photographer for the paper who served as my translator, and the two of us went to a nearby leprosy colony. (note: because leprosy is fully curable with antibiotics, people who live in these colonies are usually persons who had the disease in the past- and may have suffered consequent deformities- and their families.)

We walked from home to home and finally found someone who spoke Hindi (as opposed to a more regional dialect). I don’t want to spoil my story but we found an incredibly kind, interesting, articulate gentleman. He welcomed us into his home and spoke with me for more than an hour. I was captivated. During the interview a rat crawled over his wife, it was hot, and I was tired from a full day at work beforehand. But I could have stayed there all day. I was struck by his story and his quiet insistence that leprosy-affected persons deserved the dignity of work, no matter how humble the job.

IMG_4275While Meeta set up her photos I was led around the colony by an impromptu volunteer tour guide- an older gentleman who spoke no English but insisted on taking me to every dwelling and had me take pictures of everyone, young and old. When he wanted to get my attention he would call my “name”…”eeeleee” and (Hayley is hard to pronounce in Hindi) and off we would go. When the “tour” was over he brought me to his home/small shop, insisted on giving me tea and a coke and refused any and all forms of payment. Remember: I was a complete stranger, coming into their community, asking them deeply personal questions and offering nothing in return. I couldn’t even communicate without my translator, relying instead on the universal currency of pointing, gestures and smiles.

By now I should be used to this amazing generosity. During the International Leprosy Summit in Thailand I met Mr. V Narsappa, the chairman of a national advocacy group for leprosy affected persons.  He was diagnosed with leprosy at age 9 and was kicked out of his house at that time. He too spent hours talking with me about his experiences. At the end he asked only one thing of me: “write something that will help people affected by leprosy.” His injunction is one that I take seriously and it reminds me that be it medicine, journalism or public health…with great privilege comes great responsibility.

The generosity of my impromptu tour guide, the gentleman I interviewed, the leprosy patients I met at the hospital last month is so intense and humbling. They make me want to be a better person- more generous, more optimistic, more hospitable. In the meantime, however, I will just try to take advantage of this incredible fellowship so I can learn to tell their stories.

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6 thoughts on “Learning to tell their stories: visit to a leprosy colony

  1. Will we get to see the stories? If you can’t email them or make them part of your blog, be sure to keep copies to have at home for later reading and reference.
    Love,
    Namby

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