This is the story of Tanzanian man called Hitler and a place called Upendo.
Hitler is a gentle man, whose name is just another burden he bares in life. Hitler’s home was on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. When he first contacted leprosy nobody in his village had any knowledge of what it was. When he started losing fingers and toes the villagers were afraid. Superstitious stories abounded until it all became too much for them. The whispering suddenly stopped as he drew near. His fellow villagers turned their backs. Nobody wanted to drink with him. Few patronised his shop. People who he had known all his life now treated him as a stranger.
Hitler knew he had done nothing wrong, yet he was ostracised. He was confused, unhappy and in pain through no fault of his own. Gossip and wild stories, born of ignorance, abounded until the villagers decided to rid themselves of this fear. His shop and house were burnt down and he was chased from the village. There was no one to turn to for help; he had no home and no livelihood. Desolate, he walked away.
His brother, showing extreme bravery and true family love, decided to go with him for by now Hitler had lost all his fingers and most of his toes. Together they wandered and begged until his brother became ill and died.
Unable to take care of himself, Hitler was admitted to a local hospital where he says he was treated like a dog, the food thrown to him. But at least he had food and a roof over his head. There he stayed for eight long lonely years until one day a nurse told him about a place called Upendo. The hospital managed to persuade someone to take him on the carrier of his bicycle to Upendo, where he remains until now. Hitler cannot do anything for himself, but he has custom-made shoes so he can stagger around and is amongst friends with similar afflictions.
This is the story of Upendo. Arusha attracts beggars from all over the country. About 120 leprosy victims and families used to live under the trees on the banks of the river that runs through the centre of Arusha Town and existed by begging and scavenging. Their condition was pathetic and squalid, without even a pit latrine. Their bed was the hard ground.
In 1995, while I was Director of Vocational Services, our Rotary Club was approached by these lepers requesting help. We arranged a meal and gave them clothes. They were so grateful and in such need that we conceived the idea of building a shelter.
In December 1995 we arranged an international dinner and raised $1000 towards this – it was a start, but of course only a pittance.
A few days later I went to a local market to buy dog meat. Outside, squatting in the mud and dressed in filthy tattered rags, was a man. He had no fingers, but managed somehow to hold a raw and nearly meatless bone, which had been thrown to him where he sat amongst the stray dogs looking for pickings. He was hungry and desperate with haunted eyes as he sat gnawing the bone.
What could cause anyone to lose every scrap of dignity and be reduced to this state? Joel, for that is his name, was not the only victim of leprosy. A qualified kindergarten teacher, he had lost his job together with his fingers and toes. This appalling scene increased the urgency to help these people. (He was one of our first residents. Now he is once again clean and smart living at Upendo. He has indeed come a long way since that day.)
In 1996, by coincidence, I met with Ab Moore from the Rotary Club of Guelph, who was visiting Moshi. I told him about this project and he travelled to Arusha to see for himself. He immediately became involved and started his own fund raising through the Rotary Club of Guelph, CRCID, and Rotary International. Later, through his efforts, all the furniture, except for the beds was obtained. St Francis Leprosy Guild in the U.K donated the beds and mattresses. On 1st May 1996 the Arusha Rotarians and their families pushed a golf cart from the Town Centre to Kilimanjaro Airport some 55 kms. The co-ordinator was PDG Amir Somji and clerk of the course PP Fidelis Malembeka. It took 12 hours and raised $16,600 – sufficient funds to construct the Home.
And so the ‘Upendo Leprosy Victims Rehabilitation and Self Reliance Centre’ became a reality. On 2nd October 1996 we officially opened Upendo – which translated means ‘cared for with love’ and was the name chosen by the first residents. The Guest of Honour, Reginald Mengi, made a further generous donation.
When the lepers arrive they are in very poor condition. They are emaciated, not only by lack of food, but also, because the treatment for leprosy spoils their immune system, they suffer from scabies, dreadful ulcers, diarrhoea, coughs and eye infections. Medical bills are high – there is no National Health in Tanzania.
Soon after the start up of Upendo, Dr Peter Nichol from the Rotary Club of Canmore visited Arusha as a tourist intending to sponsor a kindergarten. We met and I happened to be talking on our leprosy project. Peter was hooked. The kindergarten shelved, he returned to Canmore and the Rotary Club there, CRCID and Rotary International raised funds which enabled us to start a number of self-sustaining projects.
Other assistance projects have come from the Rotary Club of North Shore New Zealand with other Rotary Clubs and the Rotary Club of Sutton Coldfield Vessey in the UK together with the help of this fantastic organisation The Rotary International. Through this we have been able to more than double our accommodation.
At Upendo currently we have 50 adults and 31 children. Thankfully the people with children never leave the home, whereas a few of the others, once the leprosy is under control, intend to go away and only return when the leprosy ‘flares up.” The older children attend primary school for the first time in their lives and a kindergarten teacher comes daily to entertain the younger ones. After school, training in life skills such as tailoring, masonry and carpentry are offered. Some 300 desks and forms have been donated to needy schools. The adults are self sustaining in eggs, milk, fish and vegetables. Other activities include hand loom weaving, maize grinding, a small shop and handicrafts such as embroidery, recycled paper cards, papier machie beads, bowls and Christmas decorations as well as Christmas Crackers.
Others who have supported us include the St Francis Leprosy Guild, Terre des Hommes from the Netherlands, who pay the wages for the staff at Upendo as well as the children’s food. So many have helped, both local and worldwide and we are indebted to them all. St Francis Leprosy Guild together with the Rotary Club of Guelph printed ‘Fire Fire’ – a true story about a fire at Upendo. This charming little book has been given to every secondary school throughout Tanzania to bring awareness of leprosy to the people and to spread the word that leprosy is not brought about by evil spirits, is not infectious and can be cured if treated in time. 1,000 extra copies will be sold towards the payment of the Upendo children’s education.
Over 5,000 cases of leprosy were discovered in Tanzania last year. Thankfully many were found early and cured because they were discovered in time. We hope and believe that our little children’s story ‘Fire Fire’ played a part in passing the good news that early treatment cures leprosy.