It’s been a year since my (Ramona’s) visit to the Bethany Leprosy Colony in Bapatla, Andhra Pradesh, India. I went out there to meet a group of weavers. I was looking for a group who could make products that I could import and in return for an income stream.
I first arrived at Hyderabad airport and was greeted by a man called Solomon who had grown up at the colony but who was now running a little t-shirt business in Hyderabad. He let me sleep off some jet lag at his house before travelling with me on the overnight seven hour train ride from Hyderabad to Bapatla.
When I was onboard the train, I thought “what have I let myself into”. The sleeping bunks were 3 bunks on the left and 3 on the right, one on top of the other. You got to the top by climbing on top of the other beds. This was first class apparently. Let’s not even talk about the train toilet.
Upon arrival in Bapatla, we all crammed into one auto – around 6 of us and all the bags. Typical Indian style. A short journey later and we arrived at the leprosy colony itself. Solomon’s parents were very hospitable to give up their bedroom for me. I lived with them for 2 days to see what life was like there.
The villagers have access to leprosy medication. When the older generation contracted leprosy, they were sent to this colony with their entire family. Some 300 people lived there. It is amongst the older generation that I saw crippled limbs and disfigured feet and hands. Leprosy is completely treatable with multi-drug therapy but if untreated a secondary infection develops that attacks the nervous system and causes the crippled limbs. Leprosy isn’t completely eradicated there but the younger generation seem to be living leprosy-free.
It was a tough few days. Eleven of us shared a 2 bedroom house. There was one bathroom in the rear garden with a squatting toilet. The toilet had no flush. You had to throw buckets of water down yourself. There were lots of mosquitoes swarming about. Rubbish was thrown away by literally throwing it out onto a huge pile in the back garden.
There should have been electricity but that was cut from about 9am to 6pm due to poliltical fighting in Andhra Pradesh. It was 35 degrees Celsius. It was unbearable. I tried to sit outside for some breeze. My blood started boiling because I thought how can a government do this to its poor prople? When there’s no electricity, they can’t use their sewing machines. Solomon, the only guy with a computer can’t use it to get connected to the outside world. It reeks of social injustice. They aren’t mad. They say it’s been going on for decades! The same politicians get re-elected. WHAT? I started to tell them about transprency and accountability in our UK parliamentary system to expand their understanding of the world. When people are oppressed for so long, they just accept things as the normal way of life. I hope to make them all rebels!
Eventually the electric water pump also stopped, so that the water tank ran dry. The women knew not having water would push me over the edge! They manually pumped one bucket of water for me to have a “shower”. I used half and left half for my travel companion.
Food was delicious but full of carbs. The meals were devoid of fruit and vegetables. They prepared some meat for us, for which I was thankful. They would never eat with us, saying they would eat later. Perhaps they didn’t have enough food and wanted us to have enough?
The women spent most of their mornings washing their metres and metres of saris and preparing food for their families. I thought, rather tongue-in-cheekly, if India cut the lenght of their saris by half, they may reduce poverty by half! The men in their communities typically do not do any household chores or look after children. Even if the women had paid work, when would they be able to do it? They are expected to do everything at home. Strict gender stereotypes apply here.
The children were a happy bunch. Playing and singing all day on the village roads. Actually, shouldn’t they be at school?
I saw a 10 year old boy behaving badly. He was rude and when his mother tried to tell him what to do, he kept hitting her. She didn’t actually retaliate to exert any authority over the boy. Why? I learnt that only fathers can discipline boys. Mothers have no authority over boys. Since this boy’s father was working away, the boy was therefore “allowed” to treat his mother badly. My travel companion being a British mother could not stay quiet. She pulled the boy aside and told him to respect his mother.
I see what life the women have here. They are generous, hospitable and always with a smile on their faces. To me, the women at the leprosy colony live a life with limited choices in an ostracised community. I want to give them a chance to work and earn some money.
I couldn’t leave with nothing. They showed me some bags they have been weaving for sale in the local market. I decided then and there that Little Trove would support them long term, starting with an order of bags to sell in the UK. The bags are handwoven using cotton.
Little Trove is the exclusive distributor of Village Hands products.
I give them business support, advice and whatever help I can. I plan to help them put into place a proper production facility with proper processes and trained leaders. I also plan to fundraise to help them build a workshop. At the time of writing, they have started building! Watch this space …