Anyone who complains about overseas aid should spend a week, as I have just done, visiting those affected by leprosy in Ethiopia. Many live in the worst conditions imaginable, pushed to the fringes of society.
The Woreda 1 slum on the outskirts of Addis Ababa has grown up around the Alert Hospital as those travelling from across Ethiopia seeking treatment for this disease invariably remain in the vicinity as stigma, disability or sheer economic hardship stops them from returning home. Here I witnessed unimaginable poverty, especially as I entered the one-room house of Hegeno Lerenso.
Hegeno came from the south of Ethiopia over 50 years ago to seek treatment. Today there is a multi-drug cure for the disease but this was before such a time, so leprosy continued to ravage his body. He has had to have his leg amputated, has lost his fingers and toes, he is blind and old age is now affecting his hearing. Living in the squalid conditions of his hut in the slum, he has contracted TB. He cannot even beg for alms without being assisted to get to a church or roadside.
As I was introduced to this emaciated man I saw that two filthy, ragged children, who also live there with their mother and grandfather, were picking from plates of days-old food.
It is a pitiful set-up but it is the scene in dwelling after dwelling in a community where human and animal waste melds into one and 150 lavatories are shared between 24,000 residents. Most are not fit for purpose.
The Leprosy Mission, together with local partners, has embarked on a three-year programme to tackle these conditions and will provide 120 more lavatories, 72 showers, six clean drinking water posts and a drainage system plus other support.
Leprosy is far from eradicated and there have been nearly a quarter of a million new cases since 2011. It is curable, but due to severe stigma and lamentable ignorance about the early signs of the disease too many present too late for treatment and the inevitable disabilities result.
The Leprosy Mission is a Christian charity and the love and compassion shown by its workers, inspired by Christ himself, has prompted many to follow Jesus. Even Hegeno, in his desperate condition, said: “Life may be difficult but I can take joy in the fact that I am saved by Jesus.” Such words are a humbling reminder to us all of the continued need to do God’s work here on earth.
Ann Widdecombe is vice-president of the Leprosy Mission in England and Wales. To find out more or make a donation please visit Leprosymission.org.uk or call 01733 370505.