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Priest with a mission

30 November, 1999

Andy Campbell, an Irish SVD missionary, brings a little joy to Ghana’s lepers at Christmas. Here he talks about challenging the stigma attached to the disease.

One of the “lotto” dreams of those of us adversely affected by the inclement Irish weather is Christmas in a 5-star hotel somewhere on West Africa’s Atlantic coastline. Take Ghana for example. Guidebooks wax lyrical about “an equatorial warmth” permeating its people and land. Just the tonic for a bit of Christmas cheer!

That dream will become a reality this year for 38 lepers, thanks to an Irish SVD missionary. Dublin-born Fr Andy Campbell is in Ghana since 1977. The main focus of his work has been Weija Cured Lepers Rehabilitation Centre, about five miles from the capital, Accra. Although cured of the disease, the men and women who live here bear the signs of its mutilations and as a result have over the years been shunned by society. But bit by bit, fear seems to be giving way to a more charitable and enlightened attitude.

“The General Manager of the Labadi Beach Hotel, where Queen Elizabeth stayed when she came to Ghana last year, rang me and said he would like to visit the leprosarium, where some of the men and women have been living for over 50 years,” explains Fr Andy. Donating a large quantity of sheets, blankets and other linen, the hotel manager told the men and women, some of whom are Christian and some Muslim, that this year their Christmas party on 22 December would be at his hotel. “You’re talking about a place where certainly I couldn’t afford to take a meal, it’s so expensive.” Fr Andy sees the offer as another goodwill gesture from one of the country’s high profile industries towards one of the most marginalized sections of Ghanaian society. This offer comes in addition to the annual party at the four-star Golden Tulip hotel.

Such public displays of solidarity are about rehabilitating Ghana’s lepers and breaking down the prejudice that makes outcasts of them. Ghana has about 10,000 cured and about 2,500 active lepers. Those who are active are on drugs to halt the disease’s ravages. Those who are cured cannot infect others but, on account of their scars, are still stigmatised. Current government policy aims to reintegrate these cured lepers back into society and challenge people to recognize that these are Ghanaians with the same rights as anyone else.

“I first encountered a leper when a man came to the Holy Spirit Cathedral 27 years ago to sell mangoes. I was frightened and didn’t know how to react.” In the years that followed, Fr Andy 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 treated by nurses.” If medical staff react in this way, it is not surprising that the general public should display even greater ignorance. “I saw one case recently and I have never seen the likes of it before. This woman had been kept in her village and her family hadn’t 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.”

However he believes Ghana, through church initiatives and government-led policies, is now beginning to handle the plight of lepers in a more compassionate manner. He actively champions the rights of lepers within his own parish, often inviting them to services where they are given the place of honour. “At Christmastime we have a
Christmas tree on the altar and we put small pieces of paper on string with all the names of the lepers as well as the names of the old people from the Missionaries of Charity’s home nearby and the names of the AIDS patients and the AIDS orphans. We call it a love tree and everybody in the church is asked to take a slip of paper with one of those names on it and buy a Christmas present for that person. We then deliver the present on Christmas Eve.”

As a result of his lobbying, a number of government ministers have lent their public support to his work. Just this year, the First Lady, wife of President John Kufuor, paid a visit to the leprosarium. Fr Andy himself has in the past been decorated by former president Jerry Rawlings for his work with the lepers, as well as other long-term projects, such as the Princess Marie Louise Hospital for malnourished children and the vocational school he founded in 1980 to teach disadvantaged children skills like carpentry and more recently computers. His latest project involves the development of land in the shadow of a dam built close to one of the out-stations of his parish in Tema. It is hoped that villagers will be able to make a living from cultivating the plots of land they are allotted.

The government in Ghana is anxious that lepers should no longer be relegated to begging on the streets and now pays them a daily subsidy of 1,200 cedis a day. This sounds very progressive until you compare it with the average daily wage of 10,000 cedis. “There are about 17,000 cedis to the pound sterling, So you can imagine, there is not a lot you can do with 1,200 cedis, Also the lepers don’t receive this money regularly; often it is up to three months before they get it.”

Despite the poor state of Ghana’s economy, Fr Andy believes that some improvement can be made in the state subsidy to lepers and that charitable donations and fundraising have to play a part too. “I’m called ‘the leper priest’ and have been told I’m a perpetual beggar!” With the money he has raised, Fr Andy has got a number of initiatives underway aimed at giving lepers a skill in order to help them make some money for themselves. “We have set up a mill in the leprosarium in Accra and in about four other places in Ghana, where the men and women get paid for grinding corn.” Other projects include a soap-making venture, mat-making and there are plans to set up a poultry farm, in addition to dress-making for those who still have functioning fingers.

In all this work, Fr Andy is assisted by members of the Lepers Aid Committee, which has a high quota of young students. “My emphasis has always been that if you want to work with young people and talk about religion – then you have to practise it.”

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’ll 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.” .


This article first appeared in The Word (December 2004), a Divine Word Missionary Publication.


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