Lama explores faith, in leprosy colony

Having spent the last month of my life being entirely unproductive – unless we define productivity as a number of hours or dollars spent at Stop & Shop, Walmart, the tanning salon in North Adams, the Spirit Shoppe and various online shopping sites – the closest I came to performing an act of community service would probably be picking up my friend on the way back to school post-dead week. There was zero changing of lives. So before I met Gonpo Lama ’12, a Gaudino Fellow who spent his Winter Study at a leprosy colony in India, I prepared myself for whatever feelings of tremendous guilt would surely follow.

Sitting down with Lama, I was surprised to learn he grew up in India. You would never guess because he speaks with a nearly perfect American accent – spending four years at a boarding school with a roommate from Oregon, Lama confided, helped him master the nuances of pronunciation.

Instead of lounging around and picking up an orange gun or watching the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy or maybe even attempting a sunrise hike, Lama had decided to return to India over Winter Study. However, Lama didn’t just travel back to his home. He pushed himself beyond his comfort zone by living and working in a community far removed from the India he knows: a place called Anandwan, which means “Forest of Bliss.”

“Forest of Bliss” might sound suspiciously like an overnight spa or yoga retreat. Don’t be fooled, my lovelies. It is not. Founded in 1949 by renowned human rights activist Baba Amte, Anandwan was conceived as a means “to better the plight of the marginalized leprosy patients and people with disabilities through treatment, training and active inducement in self-managed communities.” While working at Anandwan, Lama was primarily stationed at the hospital, providing first aid to leprosy patients and general support to community members. His work was particularly consequential because only one doctor administered to every member of the colony.

Undoubtedly rewarding work, it was nonetheless very challenging because, in Lama’s words, “leprosy is a really gruesome disease.” For those who are unfamiliar with the details of leprosy, the books say it’s a bacterial disease that causes eventual nerve damage in the arms and legs, with additional sensory loss to the skin. “What happens a lot is that there will be burn victims who come in,” Lama said. “You’ll ask them what happened, and they will say they had been cooking, and had not realized their hand has been too close to the fire until they smelled their own flesh burning.”

Lama went on to brief me, quite specifically, on the nature of leprosy as a disease, how it spreads and how it is treated. I thought that since Lama was so well-versed in medical jargon, he must be pre-med. This trip, I assumed, was a precursor to what would surely be a rewarding life as a doctor without borders. But Lama has no medical school plans: As the title of his project, “The Relevance of Faith and Religious Belief,” suggests, he is more interested in studying the social consequences of faith in communities rife with challenge.

In order to immerse himself fully in the lives of those he treated, Lama lived closely with those suffering from the disease – speaking, eating and playing with old and young members in the community. His fluency in Hindi also afforded him the ability to forge a unique closeness with the members of his new community. “I was trying to figure out how these people of different beliefs consolidate themselves to the fact that they have such a debilitating disease, especially a disease with so much prejudice attached,” Lama said.

Through his interactions with the patients Lama became aware that leprosy, as a disease so closely linked with poverty, finds little understanding and sympathy in mainstream India. Accordingly, the strength of the community within the colony is very important. Self-sufficiency and hard work are highly valued qualities in the community, as they not only allow the commune to provide for itself, but also foster strong individual and group esteem. “The patients grow their own food and make their own clothes,” Lama said. “They have different workshops where they build stuff like bicycles and make art. At the commune, everybody has to do work, no matter how sick they may be.”

After immersing himself in the complicated and agony-riddled, yet nonetheless often joyful, lives of the individual patients, Lama left Anandwan with a greater understanding of the meaning of faith. Not only do the patients have faith in their own worth and confidence, he explained, but also they have faith that they are living for God. Although many in India think that people with leprosy are sinful, the members of Anandwan are not troubled by such beliefs. “They don’t see themselves as being the curse of God,” Lama said. “For them, a disease can only hurt them spiritually if it damages their self-esteem and their sense of worth.”