2017-05-04 / News

Language lessons turn to crash course in leprosy

Erica Lush returns home from humanitarian mission

ABOVE: Erica Lush listens to stories from Indian women in the leprosy village of Nabakustashrum. ABOVE: Erica Lush listens to stories from Indian women in the leprosy village of Nabakustashrum. Erica Lush always intended to do humanitarian work abroad, but it wasn’t until last fall that the perfect opportunity presented itself.

The Jamestown native returned in late April from eastern India, where she spent nearly four months working with Prabhat Alloi. The organization provides education, social work and cultural preservation for impoverished Indians living in West Bengal. One of Lush’s family members, who has done charity work with the foundation, pitched the prospect in October, and she jumped at the opportunity.

In early January, Lush, 24, arrived in southern Asia and traveled to the village of Dabar in the Purulia district. With a background in linguistics — she graduated from Boston College with a bachelor’s degree in the field in 2014 — her initial objective was to research the language spoken by the Oraon people. However, she ran into setbacks while traveling to villages around West Bengal. The native tongue, although prevalent in the university region just west of Lush’s target area, was diminishing in the first three settlements she visited.

BELOW: Although she was tasked with teaching English to Indian boys, Lush added games to make the lessons more enjoyable. BELOW: Although she was tasked with teaching English to Indian boys, Lush added games to make the lessons more enjoyable. “A lot of people were learning to speak Bengali and not keeping up with their native language,” she said.

More problems followed. When Lush and her group reached the fourth village, many spoke the Oraon language, although they declined talking to the Americans. About a week into her stay, however, she started connecting with the natives.

Lush began teaching English classes to the 17 boys who live at the Prabhat Alloi youth hostel. The Indians, ranging from kindergartners to teenagers, live there while their parents work in nearby brick factories. However, this wasn’t a typical classroom — some boys were orphaned while others were raised by single parents.

“Almost all of them come from poverty,” Lush said. “The organization gives them a place to stay, food to eat and some steady guidance in their life.”

She taught the students twice a week. To accommodate the wide range in age, Lush played games with the boys to make the lessons entertaining.

“Even if they aren’t following the material, they’re at least having fun and looking forward to English next time,” she said.

Lush also visited Nabakustashrum, a “leprosy village” about a mile from Dabar. She was tasked with documenting the aid work for her blog, but began writing down personal accounts from the villagers.

“They started to tell us stories and opened up,” she said. “Over the next month, I kind of segued from making guidelines on how to move forward with the language to finding more pressing matters.”

The village was founded in the late 19th century by missionaries from Germany. It was established as a sanctuary for lepers during an era when the disease was little understood. Because leprosy was believed to be contagious, patients were forced from their homes and cast from society.

“Leprosy was a really big deal in India,” Lush said. “We just don’t think of it in America because you never hear of anyone ever having leprosy. Not only did a lot of people get it in India, it just completely ruined a person’s life.”.

An example of how leprosy can affect an Indian’s life is highlighted by a woman named Gongamone. She belongs to the Brahmin caste, a class of priests and other religious leaders that are the highest social class in India. Indians in this caste are revered by those in lower ranks. Even in a leper colony, Gongamone is no exception.

“She, in particular, has taken her caste to heart,” Lush said. “Even today, some of the women call her goddess. Although her disfigurements from the disease are among the most gruesome of the village, she allegedly used to be quite beautiful.”

The organization tried to contact Gongamone’s relatives in the native village, which only was a few miles outside of the main town. However, the only relative they could find was reluctant to admit his relation. The man, who was related to Gongamone through marriage, said the families had erased her from their lives after her diagnosis. Although leprosy is a bacterial disease, her family believed she’d been punished for sins in her past life.

“To them, it also meant that the girl they’d raised was effectively dead,” Lush said. “After sending her away, they held her funeral. Ashamed of her, the entire family then moved to another district so that no one would ask what had happened to their daughter. When we told her this news, it was the first time she was hearing it, decades after they’d left.”

Back in Rhode Island, Lush, the daughter of Bay Street residents Tony and Nancy Lush, will upload more of these stories to her blog, ericalush.wordpress.com. Although she’s no longer in India, Lush wants to continue advocating for Nabakustashrum. She is fundraising for Prabhat Alloi to pay for critical improvements to the buildings in the leprosy village.

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