Kumar Tamang, 47, is putting the final touches on his painting of an elephant with a bejewelled crown and a howdah. He dips his paintbrush on a palate and paints the border bright red. His fingers are numb and deformed by leprosy, yet he has been painting for 25 years. His love for Mithila art is on full display on the walls, pillars and ceiling of Shanti Sewa Griha, a leprosy clinic set up by the German charity, Leprahilfe, in 1992.
Nearby, in a dark corner, is 50-year-old Nathuni Barai from Nawalparasi, who also has deformed fingers which he uses deftly to draw intricate patterns on a letter pad. Both Tamang and Barai are former patients at Shanti Sewa Griha, making a livelihood from products that Leprahilfe buys from fundraising. Their families live nearby, and their children attend a school set up by the charity.
Now, nearly three decades after the clinic was set up, Shanti Sewa Griha runs a school and orphanage in Budhanilkantha, an organic farm in Sundarijal and a rehabilitation centre near Pashupati.
As the number of patients grew, they were trained in painting, tailoring, quilt making, carpentry and jewellery making as a form of livelihood. Bags, uniforms, paintings, stationery and decorative items are sold as souvenirs to raise money for the upkeep of the shelters and to pay former patients.
“This is a form of operational therapy which tries to break the vicious circle this disease has formed,” said Marianne Grosspietsch, one of the founders of Leprahilfe. “Our goal is to create hope in Nepal.”
In 1974, Grosspietsch adopted a young boy named Puskar Limbu who had leprosy like the rest of his family. She took the boy to her home in Germany, treated his leprosy and sent him to school. Limbu went on to pursue a successful career in graphic design in Germany and is a grandfather himself today.
Children of former leprosy patients have also gone on to become nurses and doctors.
Kalpana Pariyar (pictured above) was 14 when she was diagnosed with leprosy before there was serious nerve damage to her fingers. She grew up in the shelter and married fellow-patient Krishna Majhi, whom she took care of until he died eight years ago. She now has a college going daughter and an eight-year-old son.
“I have spent my entire life here. This is my home, this is where I made my life and found peace,” says Pariyar, looking up from her sewing machine on which she was weaving dhaka fabric.