How it all began


The very first time that I saw people who suffered from leprosy was in Benares during my first travel through India. They were sitting on the side of the road, ostracised from society, begging. They seemed so hopeless, as if they were only waiting for their own death, that for days I only sneaked past them, daring to glance at them only briefly.

Wie alles begann - Indien

But one day I sit on the top of the stairs that lead to the Holy River Ganga, struck by stomach pain that kept me from walking on. There an old white-haired man, obviously suffering from leprosy, came to me and asked whether I needed some help. This left me speechless, as I was the wealthy tourist with air tickets and cash in my pockets, and I should have offered him my help, not the other way around.

He blessed me and looked at me with such love it struck my heart and soul, and then caringly touched my head. I was not scared of his touch even though I had no idea what the consequences were (at this point in time I knew nothing about leprosy, not even that this disease is curable), because this man gave me so much human warmth. After a few minutes I could get up again and walk down the stairs.

The very next day I went looking for this man, I wanted to give him a few useful items to thank him for his help. When I found him, I asked for his name. He answered: "Child, in 14 years no one has ever asked for my name, so why would you want to know it now?" His name was Musafir, and his answer has remained stuck with me ever since.

Within a few minutes we were joined by other sufferers, and a conversation in sign language began. A young man who also suffered from leprosy named Tingla showed me how he can draw beautifully despite his missing fingers, he strapped a pencil or brush to the inside of his palm with a bandage and started painting amazing pictures. So I went and bought pencils and paper and from that day on we were making drawings together. There were always other leprosy people with us and they brought tea and cigarettes. Their joy about me bothering with them and being interested in them was visible on their faces. One month went by and every day we were making drawings together. With this man’s help I learned my first Hindi words and a friendship evolved with the whole group of leprosy people, some even started calling themselves my grandfather, little brothers and older brothers and sisters.

But then the unimaginable happened: One day the police gathered all these leprosy people on the street and locked them up in a truck parked on the main road. I did not understand what was happening, but saw the fear and horror in the eyes of these people who had nothing left but their freedom. I asked the police what they were doing and was told that begging is illegal und that the men would be brought to jail. I was afraid that I would never see them again once they were deported and I did not know what would happen to them.

It was a snap decision - I asked myself whether I had really meant it when I said they were my brothers, and that I could not simply abandon them to their fate because I would as well defend my own brother if he was to be imprisoned innocent. So to the horror of the police I climbed into the truck. They asked me to get off again but once I was in the midst of the untouchables I became one of them.
When the truck took off we were followed by more than 100 bicycles, and the crowd was divided about my reaction, some were attacking me while others called out 'God bless you'.

We were carted through the city for hours collecting more beggars on the way, the heat was unbearable and an old man named Vishwanath collapsed. At a camp surrounded by high walls they were dropped off, not counted nor had their names taken. So I wrote down their names, and some asked me to send a telegram to their families, to tell them they were still alive but that for an unknown period of time could not send any money. Usually they would send their begging money home to their families in the village so that their wives and children could make a living, and they would keep only the smallest part for themselves.

Immediately I went off to find an Indian lawyer to learn about the rights of leprosy people - being citizens of India they must have some rights. For 3 months, I tried every day to get them free, I went to see the mayor, the magistrate and the supreme judge of Benares but the entire matter turned out to be utterly complicated.

Wie alles begann - Indien

By that time I should have long returned to Europe where I wanted to attend a school for photography in Rome and the courses had already started. So I kept calling there and asked to keep my spot as I still wanted to attend the course but on the other hand I could not simply leave those people behind.

One day I was interviewed by an Indian journalist and the article got published in newspapers throughout India. Consequently the beggars were being released in small groups. Once they all were back on the streets they gathered and pleaded that I would not return to my home country. They told me they needed medicine and housing, and we were talking all night. During the same time I met a swiss doctor and she told me that leprosy was curable - at any stage, and that I should contact the WHO for more information (back then there was no Internet), and she gave me 100 dollar.

These 100 dollar became the foundation of my project. And as life always pans out the way it's supposed to be, a Dutch nurse, on her way to Mother Teresa in Kolkata, came to see me and offered her help. So I found out where to buy medicine in bulk and we started the first street clinic for the sufferers and their children. With the help of many volunteers from all over the world I kept this clinic running for 6 years; and after my group had been successfully treated and rehabilitated and they could return to their villages or move to leprosy colonies, I eventually handed it over to a swiss organisation, so that I could focus my attention to the children on the streets, whose plight I discovered during the street clinics and who required urgent help. These are the children who now live in my children's homes.

Originally I thought I would give 2 years of my life to then return to Europe (where I had been happy too) for that is the required duration of leprosy treatment; meanwhile it became clear however, that this is my life's work, which I am happy to fulfil. The most difficult times when I had been attacked and ostracised by Indian society for my actions are over now, and by now I am treated with respect. After a very long battle of small cumbersome steps this my project has grown and blossomed and is now carrying the fruit for everyone to see and positive throughout.