Eighty-year-old Gladys Adobea, a survivor of leprosy has found home at Weija Leprosarium, a facility for people who have been cured of leprosy that is located about five miles from Ghana’s capital city, Accra.
At this home, about 30 survivors of the skin disease lead their lives away from the wider society that isolates lepers for fear of getting infected with the disease known to disfigure the body by causing the skin tissues to degenerate.
In the West African country, lepers and people who have been declared free of the disease are shunned in equal measure, with a common notion that “once a leper, always a leper”, a belief that Madam Adobea, who has been staying at Weija Leprosarium since its inception in 1993, says is not true.
“It is not true that a cured person who only has scars of the disease can transmit it to other people. But not many Ghanaians know this. I took care of my children in my condition and none of them was ever diagnosed with leprosy at the hospital,” says Madam Adobea.
Madam Adobea told ACI Africa that she has five children and that she beat all odds, including fighting societal stigma to take care of all her children before she met Fr. Andrew Campbell, a young Irish missionary who was among the first people to change the public perception of leprosy in Ghana.
Touched by the suffering that the lepers underwent, Fr. Campbell created a support system for patients and set about mingling with the sick and cured alike, in utter disbelief of those who witnessed the unusual kind gesture.
“I’m referred to as the lepers’ priest and I have been told I’m a perpetual beggar,” says Fr. Campbell in an interview with ACI Africa Friday, March 27, a day that the Irish Priest celebrated his 74th birthday with the leprosy survivors at their leprosarium.
His main work with lepers in Ghana has, for decades, involved soliciting funds to support lepers who have been isolated in community homes, away from their families and from other members of the society.
Fr. Campbell founded the Lepers Aid Committee (LAC), a self-sacrificing, voluntary and humanitarian group of young Ghanaians who are committed to empowering less privileged leprosaria inmates, back in 1993.
“LAC has for the past 27 years engaged in several activities aimed at raising funds and bringing to the public the needs and aspiration of our neglected cured lepers remembering the biblical reference that says, whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, you do unto me in the Gospel of St. Matthew,” Fr. Campbell says, adding that the group has been working in several other leprosaria spread in different parts of the West African country.
Fr. Campbell narrates his first encounter with leprosy more than 20 years ago in an incident that the Irish Divine Word Missionary priest says ignited in him a deep commitment to the lepers.
“I first encountered a leper when a man came to the Holy Spirit Cathedral in Accra some years ago to sell mangoes. I was frightened and didn’t know how to react,” says the member of the Society of the Divine Word (SVD) Missionaries who has been very vocal in calling on Ghanaians, families in particular, to accept and integrate cured lepers into their midst.
In the years that followed, Fr. Campbell notes that he began to take an active interest in the plight of these people, and he noticed how they were treated, even by medical staff at the hospitals.
“I have heard horrendous stories about the way they have been shunned and treated badly by nurses. If medical staff react in this way, it is not surprising that the general public should display even greater ignorance,” the Irish Priest says.
He recounts: “I saw one case sometime back and I had never encountered in my life before. This woman had been kept in her village and her family had not brought her for medical attention because of the stigma attached to the disease. She was in a most awful condition. This is such a pity because if the leprosy is caught in the early stages, it might only be affecting a small patch of skin.”
Fr. Campbell, the Parish Priest of Christ the King Church who has lived in Ghana since 1971 has been honored as a less-celebrated person who has touched lives of many victims of societal discrimination against leprosy and changed how people with the disease are treated.
While delivering a statement on the floor of Ghana’s Parliament House on the call to action to end discrimination against persons with leprosy to mark the 2020 World Leprosy Day on January 26, Dr. Zanetor Agyeman-Rawlings, Member of Parliament for Korley Klottey Constituency hailed Fr. Campbell for his efforts in fighting against stigmatization of lepers, saying that “he deserves special recognition and mention for devoting his life to showing love and care for persons with leprosy.”
“Fr. Campbell’s selflessness, love, care and advocacy has contributed significantly to improving the lot of people living with leprosy in Ghana,” Dr. Zanetor noted, adding, “If Fr. Campbell and the LAC can do so much to alleviate the plight of cured lepers, then as a nation we can do more.”
According to the MP who belongs to the main opposition party in Ghana, one of the main challenges confronting persons with leprosy is stigmatization and discrimination, saying that they are marginalized and treated with scorn within their communities. This, she said, leads to situations where the disease goes unreported and people refusing to seek early treatment for fear of being marginalized.
Dr. Zanetor noted that although there has been a marked improvement in the treatment and support for persons with leprosy, a lot more needs to be done to improve their living conditions.
She said despite the increase in the daily feeding fee for lepers to GHc1.00 (US$0.2), with the trying economic conditions in the country, the amount was woefully inadequate and suggested the review of the figure “to reflect the current economic situation and to alleviate the plight of our brothers and sisters with leprosy.”
The main focus of Fr. Campbell’s social work has been the support to the inmates of Weija Cured Lepers Rehabilitation Centre and other Leprosaria in the country.
Although cured of the disease, the men and women who live in these isolated facilities bear the signs of its mutilations and as a result have over the years been shunned by society. But bit by bit, fear has given way to a more charitable and enlightened attitude.
He is of the opinion that such integration would complement and add value to work going on at the leprosarium where fine efforts are being made to cure lepers.
“If society continues to reject the healed lepers, it has far reaching consequences on what is going on at the leprosarium. Let us remove the stigmatization the lepers go through,” Fr. Campbell told ACI Africa.
The Irish priest occasionally holds awards night where individuals and organizations that have helped the Committee are honored in events that are hosted at the leprosarium.
Fr. Campbell assures organizations supporting the cured lepers’ project that their monies and contributions would be used to improve the living standards of the inmates.
He said the Committee took full responsibility for the Weija Leprosarium, adding it had supported in the past the Ho, Nkanchina, Kokofu, Anindado and Ahontokrom Leprosaria in Ghana.
Fr. Campbell expresses concern that lepers are treated like third class citizens, and describes the act “a terrible thing.”
“These people have rights and have to be taken care of,” he states, adding, “These people have to be treated with dignity. The notion that once a leper is always a leper is not true.”
Like the Biblical lepers who were segregated by society and forced to wear bells to warn people that they had the skin disease which was considered highly contagious, lepers are still shunned in most African countries, with those who have been cured in Ghana being forced to stay away in isolated homes, a situation that Fr. Campbell bemoans.
Faced with the challenges of getting more people to support activities of lepers, Fr. Campbell believes that some adjustments can be made in the state subsidy to lepers and that charitable donations and fundraising have to be more forthcoming to help.
When asked why the lepers are so close to his heart, he answers without hesitation, “If you are ever feeling down and out and you go to see the lepers, you will come back a different person. They have so much hope and they are grateful for the little they have materially. I see them as a sign of hope and encouragement, a blessing for our society. They are our treasure because they bring out the good in other people.”
The Irish religious cleric has been in Ghana for over 49 years, acquiring the name Nii Lantey over the years. Fr. Campbell says his role model is Mother Theresa and that he has adopted her renowned motto “Do Something Beautiful for God” as his source of strength.