How does healthcare work in conjunction with religion and culture to prevent and treat leprosy? How do Ethiopians use religion as a frame for understanding and managing disease? During my two weeks spent in ALERT leprosy hospital in Korah village of the capital city Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, questions of this variety helped me to reflect on the hypothesis I developed prior to my arrival in Eastern Africa: the most effective model for medical treatment is one that combines allopathic medicine with local culture and religion. I wondered that if such a statement were true than would I find that ALERT offered a concrete example of such a model? Can methods that include effective treatment, but are cognizant of the effects of local beliefs, be used to reverse the progression of leprosy and prevent further development of multidrug-resistant mycobacterium leprae strains? What kind of immediate steps can we take to improve quality of life and what long-term techniques might best address their medical needs?
Observing dermatologist and leprosy specialist, Dr. Elizabeth Bizuneh, over the course of two weeks elucidated a plethora of variables I needed to take into account in reflecting on my hypothesis meaningfully. It was quickly evident to me that treatment of any sort administered at ALERT could be deemed ineffective unless other, basic needs of this incredibly impoverished community were met like nutritious meals and clean water. For example, how could fine-tuning medical treatment be effective when a community lacking shoes continued to succumb to a disease that is primarily acquired through feet? More unanticipated variables that caused me to adjust the way I initially approached my inquiry was ALERT’s role as an international hospital characterized by a diverse patient base making any specific models of healthcare reliant upon culture complicated. Though I didn’t observe any overt religious traditions utilized at ALERT, I did witness a pronounced negotiation between doctors and patients that certainly has contributed towards a positive and sustaining treatment for patients. Perhaps clinics serving smaller, divisible communities could utilize concrete techniques incorporating local religious practices, however, at ALERT I witnessed how a paradigm of this fusion between culture and medicine is currently manifesting itself through subtle doctor-patient interactions.
From the night I first arrived until the evening I flew out, my time spent in Ethiopia was almost always characterized by some degree of feeling uncomfortable. I wasn’t surprised by the fact that my appearance as a young, blonde girl from the States would cause me to stick out in most crowds or even that nearly all of my endeavors would have to be carried out with a translator or trustworthy male nearby. As expected my trip was a string of extremely uncomfortable situations, but what I couldn’t have prepared for and didn’t anticipate was a deeper discomfort with the way I had been living my life before I traveled to Africa. As someone who bases my life of the teachings of Jesus Christ, when I read passages in the Bible directing me towards helping the poor, the oppressed, the widow, I often felt momentarily convicted but rarely was catalyzed into authentic action. Ethiopia gave me a new angle on life that has cultivated a new passion in me to seek the good of others and thereby more fully embrace what it means to be a Christian.
The first day I arrived in Addis, we drove around Korah and I looked upon hundreds of people living on the side of the road, mired in the stubbornness of poverty. That night I felt frustrated with myself. Why didn’t I feel more for these people? How come tears weren’t rolling down my face at the hopelessness I had seen and touched? However, as the trip wore on, my frustration turned to understanding as I became personally involved. I remembered names and revisited people day after day. As I became invested in their plight, it became personal, and that’s when the tears came. In my own discomfort I empathized with these acquaintances and experienced the odds they were fighting, but even more remarkably, I saw their great gratitude despite such circumstances. I realized that I hadn’t merely been choosing the parts of my Christianity I wanted to put into action and the parts I wanted to leave behind, but rather, I had never before been forced to consider how involving myself in deeply impoverished circumstances might be another integral part of my faith. I had never personally grappled with the poverty some of my friends in Ethiopia deal with every moment of their lives, but now that I have experienced it firsthand it has and will continue to shape the way I think and act. When I think of the friendships I have developed it’s impossible for me to walk away ignoring the incredible resources I have been blessed with and the ability I have to reach out to those who have less. From East Africa to Williamstown to rural Montana, I now know that helping those who need it the most is a calling on my life as a Christian and as a human being.