Exorcizing Fear of the Lepers

a writing by Elizabeth Padillo Olesen

As a young child in a fishing island in the Philippines, I learned to be so scared of lepers. Old people and other children used to warn us, the smaller ones, never to tread on the ground at the other side of the island because lepers lived there. I was told how ugly lepers looked like, they who lost their ears, fingers or toes. Fear lurked inside me even before I had the chance to personally encounter real lepers.

My parents never mentioned about them. The existence of the lepers was like a taboo so I never asked. But as I grew older, between 9 to 10 years old, my curiosity grew. I found myself for a number of times, sneaking into the forbidden area, coming closer to that site, just wanting to see how lepers looked like. The hut I learned which belonged to the lepers was always closed. However, I saw some children. I learned they were children of the lepers. These children, whom I had never seen in school, looked very silent and shy, seemingly different from us who had the childish freedom to fight, shout or scream on the streets.

I did not see that they lost their fingers or toes or nose or ears. They were just like us. The only difference was that I had never seen them roaming around the island, never seen them attending community programs where people used to flock. I felt betrayed by the fear inflicted on me. I pitied them, wondering why they did not have the chance to go to school. They were poor children as they shared the fate of their parents, being excluded from the community because of their dreaded disease, leprosy. I never thought that a local doctor in my village had ever dared to tread on the lepers’ ground.

When it was time for me to leave the island to be in the city to study, I also encountered lepers in front of the church cathedrals, sitting on the steps of the church extending their bowls for the passers-by to drop in coins. People passed them by. Others bothered to show their mercy by giving few coins into their bowls. I managed to come closer to them by dropping my own expression of mercy by few coins but I had to hurry leaving the area in fear of getting infected. My fear had never been exorcised. I never had the chance to talk to anyone of them. They seemed only to be frigthening figures one must run away from.

But it was here in the city, where I learned that a local church had a program to take care of the lepers, to provide them with medicines. And for the daily survival of their own families, they had to go out, begging to secure food for their own loved ones.

Then it was my turn to work in Nepal. The time in Nepal helped me deal with the deep fears towards the lepers. It was here I experienced people really giving serious time with the lepers, treating their disease by medicines and providing them means to live on.

It was in Nepal through the United Mission to Nepal I learned about Leprosy Mission with the sole purpose to help the plight of the lepers. It was here I personally encountered a leper couple who worked for the school and became a friend to the small children. How this couple could laugh and smile and show their inner joy even if their faces could not hide the violence leprosy has left on their disfigured looks. It was here I could exchange personal chats with them as real persons.

(They, too, are human beings who need friendship and acceptance. And when we are able to speak to them as persons, we realize that we are in the same boat— wanting healing both in body and spirit. )

Others found themselves engaged in handicrafts like batik paintings on the cloths or making woodwork in cooperative ventures, giving them income to live on. Here they get the chance to read and write and do arithmetic and their small children are sent to school. Here lepers get help to function as normal people in society in spite of their physical handicaps.

It was in Nepal that I experienced lepers knocking at my door, wanting to sell some of their vegetables. It was in Nepal I could invite some lepers to enter into my home and entertain them with Nepali tea while trying to speak with them in the Nepali language. Here the lepers felt the worth to be valued in their capacity to assist a struggling foreigner to learn their native tongue.
I never thought that it would be in Nepal I could receive a leper into my home as a guest and friend.
I never thought that a friendly encounter with them as equal human beings could help exorcise my own fears.

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