Pictures and words by Fabrizio Fiorenzano
Access to quality health care in Nepal is nowhere as easy to come by as it is in the West.
Here in the tallest country of the world, where the beautiful Himalayas overlook the entire nation and separate it from Tibet, where tourists climb the mountains surrounding the living museum of the Kathmandu valley, serious diseases and health conditions such as leprosy, HIV, tuberculosis and child malnutrition are endemic. Only the wealthiest individuals may afford the level of health care necessary to effectively deal with such serious health issues.
In September of 2001 I traveled to Nepal, with the intention of producing a new report. I was based out of Kathmandu, but one day I rode a cab to the nearby city of Pashupatinath where I knew there would be something of interest.
This city is mostly known for being where Hindus have their dead cremated, but there also is a small complex of temples where some nuns belonging to Mother Teresa’s Order help run a charitable shelter for old and sick people suffering of various diseases.
Twice a week, fifteen nuns come here to comfort and provide care to these people. Many of them are simply old and alone in life, with nowhere else to go or stay, and nobody else to turn to.
As I got out of the taxi. a little boy promptly came up to me and offered to be my guide to the city. I asked to be taken to this shelter. Most tourists are not allowed access to the complex, as they are not Hindus.
My first impression as I entered the leprosarium was better than I expected. It was clean and quiet, and not at all as depressing as I thought it would have been. Unfortunately, this was soon to change. The residents conducted themselves with great dignity and pride, especially the women. Although clearly very poor, they took great care of themselves and their appearance. Women usually prepare the food – typically rice and vegetables flavored with various spices – and do laundry together in a shared space in the communal yard, using old pails and running water. Although at first I felt like a complete outsider, I soon realized that they did not really appear to be bothered in any way by my presence.
There were monkeys everywhere, climbing and walking along the walls of the complex. Monkeys are sacred animals in Nepal. I was advised by my guide to avoid staring them into the eyes, as this might be interpreted as a hostile signal and could trigger aggressive reactions. Many people in Nepal are wounded by monkeys every year.
Carefully trying not to upset these feral monkeys, I next found myself walking through another section of the shelter, there where the sickest lay in their beds. Scarcely illuminated by whatever slim sunlight may reach them, since no sources of artificial light are installed, the sight of all these wretched men and women lying down in unkempt beds filled me with a deep sense of sadness and loneliness. It was here, that I truly realized how terrible health care really was in this country, in a way far more effective than any printed statistics could ever convey.
Although visitors are not normally allowed to take photographs in this area of the complex, after my guide’s suggestion a few rupees handed to one of the women granted me special exemption. I really wanted to bring back some of these powerful images. Although a photographer should not refrain from capturing images that may shock or upset the viewers, in some cases the desire to be respectful to the weak and the unfortunate among us must simply take priority.
Recognizing my respectful approach, everyone around me started reaching out and asking me about myself, my country of origin and more. We spoke, in a friendly and heartfelt mood, and then we shared some food, very simple yet delicious.
I stayed with them for a couple of hours, which surprised them significantly. Apparently, most tourists who go visit there are in a great hurry to quietly leave as soon as they manage to take a few pictures of the local features. But in my case, time flew. I realized how late it really was only when it started getting noticeably cooler and darker.
Before leaving, I glanced around one more time, the scene unchanged since my arrival. People sitting on the ground, gathered in small groups, the darkness now slowly engulfing them making them resemble clusters of silent ghosts. But what really had changed was in myself. I left with mixed feelings. Happy, as I felt deeply enriched by this memorable experience, in an intimately human way. But sad as well, as I realized how lucky I was to have a wife and family waiting for me back home