In the year 1978 my husband and I spent our holidays in Gambia, West Africa. We knew that there were leprosy cases but did not have any further information.

Neither the Travel Guide of the hotel nor the local people could give us any details.

A few days after our arrival we attended a Sunday mass at the local church. The parishioners were talking while leaving the little wooden church. An Irish priest asked us why we had decided to come to Gambia. When he learned about our intention to meet leprosy people he immediately knew how to contact them.

He told us that twice a week leprosy patients attended ambulatories – so-called ’dispensaries’ for treatment. The following day, we found a small ambulatory near the church. There were other health-care centres, all of a similar structure.

We entered a bungalow consisting of 5 rooms. A few steps led us to the central room, the waiting room, from which the patients were called into the nurse’s room. When the patients had dealt with the formalities, they were led into the doctor’s consulting room. The doctor also had an additional room with boxes of medicine and ointment jars, which he was authorised to keep in stock as he exercised the task of a pharmacist at the same time.

There was also a small room in the dispensary where local women could give birth to their children under medical attendance. However, they were not allowed to stay at the dispensary longer than three hours following the birth of their child and had to take their new-born and return to the outback.

We were very surprised that we did not see any room where leprosy patients could receive medical help and asked the African doctor in charge for an explanation. ‘Leprosy people are not allowed inside the dispensary’, he said, ‘they have to wait in front of the ambulatory, underneath a roof-like shelter,’ He opened the window of his consulting room. A leprosy patient had just arrived and did not dare approach the window. He waited until the doctor addressed him. ‘I have run out of tablets,’ he said. The medical doctor then counted 30 Dapsone tablets, wrapped them up in paper and handed  them over to the man through the window.

When the doctor noticed that we were particularly interested in this patient, he made an exception and called him inside the ambulatory. The man approached in a timid and hesitant way. Without touching the patient, the medical doctor showed us his skin lesions. The next leprosy patient was already waiting outside. We clearly noticed the discriminating way in which leprosy patients were treated.  

My desire to help this leprosy patient and as well countless others who I did not know yet constantly occupied my thoughts and became stronger and stronger.

The medical doctor was very pleased that we were spending the whole day in the dispensary and told us about his various tasks. He repeatedly emphasized that he had to be very economical with the medicine supplied. We could watch him giving injections without changing the cannula - but only cleaned it with a ball of cotton which he soaked in alcohol for disinfection. He alternately vaccinated young children and injected adults penicillin, proudly telling us, ’I manage to make up to 100 injections with one and the same needle.’

He also told us about a leprosarium which was located  an eight hour’s drive away and willingly proposed to take us there.  

While considering the complex of problems related to leprosy, I realised that medical knowledge was required to assure profound aid and therefore decided to attend a special training in an appropriate hospital.