Leprosy has been around since the start of civilization and is considered to be one of the world’s biggest diseases.
A new case of leprosy is reported every minute in India alone, and the fact that the nation still attaches a social stigma to it breeds a much bigger disease: the feeling of being unwanted. Lepers are banned from driving, taking the train, or voting in the world’s biggest democracy. As well as being ostracized from society, they’re often rejected by their own families, all because of an age-old belief that the illness is highly contagious and spiritually evil.
Anandwan is a community rehab centre in the heart of India for 1,800 of these social outcasts where I met some of the most beautiful souls I’ve ever come across. The refuge was selflessly created by a saint of a man called Baba Amte, who dedicated his life to helping others, and who even volunteered to be injected with the leprosy-causing germ to help develop an effective cure. Until now, his creation has healed almost a million people.
While most patients are eventually cured, most are marked by it. Untreated, the illness can spread to the extremities, rob them of the sense of touch, and might gradually take away the rest of the senses. The school I volunteered at taught dozens of kids whose leprosy had spread to their ears and had led to varying degrees of deafness. When we offered them musical instruments after class, the only thought of contagiousness on our minds came from the sheer joy in their faces as they banged the drums and felt the music through their hands.
Anandwan offers every member a chance to learn the skills needed to find an essential role in society and, above all, to feel wanted again. Everyone pitches in to do their share of supporting the self-sufficient community, whether it’s working in the fields to feed everyone, or making clothes to trade with nearby villages. In the downtime they plant trees to expand the luscious green forest that surrounds the village and beautifully reflects their own flourishing lives. As I played a gig with one of the local bands one night, I’ll always remember Baba Amte’s words written in big letters on the back wall of the auditorium: ‘Give them a chance, not charity’.
The most touching memory I have of staying at Anandwan several years ago, was hearing one particular frail old man’s singing as I stepped into the retirement home every morning. While massaging his body to help with the blood circulation, I fell in complete admiration. He had no hands to feed himself, no feet to walk on, no functioning eyes to see and no working ears to hear…yet the feeling of simply being loved was enough to draw pure joy all over his face – the same joy in the faces of all the people you pass on the streets of Anandwan. It was then that the meaning of Anandwan hit me for the first time: Forest of Joy.