Marianne Grosspietsch talking to Doris Kleinau-Metzler, October 2007

»Shanti Leprahilfe« of Dortmund celebrated its 15th birthday in June 2007. That alone would have been a reason to celebrate with all the people working in connection with this as the help they offer is admirable. Admirable is also their founder, Marianne Grosspietsch, who cares for the worries and the dignity of the affected people with the warmness of her heart and a contagious optimism.

Because of its close connection to poverty, the infectious disease of leprosy is known for many thousand years and still widespread in Asia, Africa and Latin America despite effective medication. Marianne Grosspietsch was confronted with the disastrous consequences of leprosy – mutilation and outlaw status – for the first time when she went to Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, with her husband to see her godson more than 30 years ago. The first contacts went as far as to an adoption; and her personal confrontation with the human misery of the parents of her adoptive son in a lepers' ghetto made her wish to help some more. Meantime the charity organization Shanti-Leprahilfe Dortmund e.V. celebrated their 15th anniversary. A number of 1,500 people are provided with help and a home in three different project sites in and around Kathmandu under the care of native aides whose parents often had lived in the leprosy ghetto. An outpatient clinic, a nursing station for severely handicapped people, workshops for disabled and poor people, residential huts, a school and a kindergarten, a kitchen and not at last farming facilities for organic fruit and vegetables, originated out of an impulse of Marianne Grosspietsch, who is, again and again, moved to help the Shanti project by “the sheer delight to perceive life in its full diversity and to experience a community”. She was one of the 1000 women collectively nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 2005.

Doris Kleinau-Metzler | Mrs Grosspietsch, can you remember how everything began?

Marianne Grosspietsch | The first impulse of all was certainly my children; we wanted to raise them liberally and so we got involved with our godson. After our son’s high school graduation we visited our godson’s parents in the leprosy ghetto – his father had lost his hands and feet and got blind as he had not been treated for the illness, and he was so immeasurably sad not to be able to see his son whom they had given in our care. That touched my soul…I had studied theology and Jewish studies for some terms with much pleasure; but I realised that if I wanted to be my true self I could not ignore the sentence Jesus said: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

DKM | Why is Leprosy so difficult to fight?

MG | Leprosy is actually a nervous disease which can nowadays be medicated with antibiotics and will then not be contagious any more. Most people think that leprosy is a skin disease because at first you will see spots on the skin; even some years after infection; and these spots are numb, that means painless. Dirt can penetrate into these spots on the occasion of the smallest of injuries; bacteria will grow until they reach the bone and destroy it. Muscles will contract thus forming claw hands; moistness can stay between the fingers giving rise to smelling wounds; this again attracts rats and this leads to cruel consequences for the sick. That is why it is extremely important to us to carefully treat the wounds although there are no leprosy-affected people in our institution any more. A lot of people there are marked for life. They cannot understand their situation and ask questions such as “Where is my nose when I will be healed?” It is true: this disease is still there, in the small villages in remote regions, for instance. The national health system does hardly work, and we have no access to those regions.

DKM| How are you dealing with this disease and disabled people in Nepal?

MG | Lepers are ejected from their village even though they may be healed; this is why so many of them hide their illness for as long as possible; disability is considered to be a punishment of the Gods. We have an ever-increasing number of patients of the most serious nursing levels needing permanent care, who had been carried to our station on their mother’s backs with a lot of effort after they had been hidden more or less successfully for many years – paraplegic people; children with serious trisomy, the so-called Down Syndrome, who are unable to walk; a lot of children with lip, jaw, and palate clefts, and muscle dystrophy – not least because there is no knowledge of hereditary health. In Nepal, there is moreover the experience that 5 out of 10 children will only survive, and they will be the ones securing their parents’ existence, because no one will get any pension or any other help here. When I celebrated my 40th high school graduation anniversary with a few of my school friends, we talked a lot about pensions and the amount of pension you are going to get. You have all the security you want – and nevertheless you worry about your future.

DKM | How do you experience life and people in Nepal?

MG | I see us (she is laughing about counting herself among them) as more balanced because many people I encounter there can rejoice in small things – again and again. When our seamstresses see a bush in full bloom, they will pick a flower and put it in their hair, just like that. And many are able to express themselves in a distinct way: “Oh, I have a warm and full belly today, isn’t that nice?” It is a pleasure for our children to receive a carrot or an apple. The women are marvellously skilled in dealing with their babies; they learn it from each other because there will always be some baby or other in the surroundings: they give them an oil massage every morning, and the babies are wonderfully relaxed. There is no end in the happiness I experience there” – Okay, there is also the other side of Nepal: poverty, corruption, insufficient public health care, state schools in which children will only learn by heart and how to repeat, and then some cases of abuse – when a girl is unwanted in the family, for instance – and the disabled expelled. But again and again I am thankful for our native team which accurately knows about life and copes with current business in an exceptional way.

DKM | What is most important to you when you think of Shanti’s work in Nepal?

MG | My goal, on the one hand, is to be able to feed those 1,500 people who live and work with us – everybody who is able to work will work; even those who have crippled hands are able to stamp motifs on paper in our paper workshop with the help of special contrivances. On the other, I wish that the people coming there can experience a special soul feeling: This is where I am accepted like I am; where I have a home. In spite of the narrow situation which some of the seriously disabled experience, everyone will be able to extend themselves, by drumming, singing, painting, being swung on the swing, being oiled – something that makes their short life worth living. I especially count on design, on aesthetics, because I am convinced that this has a major influence on people and their souls can grow when they live in beautiful surroundings. All residents, the former lepers, paint their huts in the tradition of their own home ethnicities. We never needed to tell them to repair things in our two settlements, because the residents maintain their home to a good condition. Our workshops, on the other hand, produce beautiful things, silverware, tissues, shawls, carpets and toys…

DKM| Shanti also grows fruit and vegetables with organic farming methods. How did you manage that?

MG | I think it was my unobstructed view from outside which did it; I saw what they did in Nepal with chemical fertilizers which were partly financed by the World Bank – they used them in excess quantities, not only because they do not understand the instructions for use enclosed; sometimes the bags are open when they transport them; so insecticides and pesticides can penetrate into their life environment. When I had the occasion to visit the Sekem farm with their organic-dynamic farming principles, in Egypt in the desert with my manager, I knew for sure: We want to do a similar thing. In Nepal, they also profit from the Nepalese farmers’ ancient old knowledge how to treat the soil and nature well; and this knowledge is being used by our old gardener who passes this knowledge on to others. The number of pests in the fruit garden of our first property could be reduced; and we could harvest more and more healthy fruit and vegetables for our kitchens in order to feed many people. We also use solar energy to reduce current costs, we were able to build a biogas plant which is fueled from the toilets and from the manure of our four cows; plant residues are used for the production of bio-briquettes for emergency cases where biogas is needed for cooking and will not suffice to heat hot water too. Eight employees have a full salaried job now.

DKM | How are the Shanti facilities financed in Nepal?

MG | Below the line, everything is only possible with donations. A number of facilities, such as the sick station, toilets and others have been financed by organizations such as the German Embassy, The Rotary Club and Lions Club, and even some individual donors. It was a big surprise and lucky event for us that we were given 500,000 euros by Hape Kerkeling, the entertainer, who had won this sum on our behalf in a “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” TV VIP quiz show. From this money, we could buy a school bus and, what is even better, a piece of land where we build a clinic, workshops, a kindergarten and a large kitchen. We even found a waterway there, and could build a fountain where the residents of the surrounding slums can get free water – this led to a reduction of more than 60% of cholera and typhus cases. It is, of course, difficult to secure financing for current operations: we would need ca. 30,000 euros per month. Regular donors cover this need with approximately 12,000 euros; the provisions only last for eight months, however. This is why I am travelling so much to offer information and ask for support for our project.

DKM | So your work is based on regular financial help from Europe?

MG | Money is the basis – like earth for plants; that is for sure. But the important thing is what happens between people: What people need there, again and again, is being together – this is how I define globalization; it means that you pass your experience and options on to others. This is a mutual process, as I see it, and I infinitely profited from it, and it has influenced many people in Europe since, I am quite certain. I think not least of all the people assuming godparenthood or a sponsorship; and of all the individual donors who say: I share and offer something – the loving old ladies, for instance, who gave up sitting in a café with their friend, so supporting us with standing orders; of the church communities, and many, many more.

DKM | It is always rather surprising if you see what can become of a small original impulse, like the one you had.

MG | You are right; and this is what encourages us. You need not say I alone can do nothing. The first step, even an emotional consternation, is always followed by other steps. This shock imparted by circumstances is one of my agents; and the awakening from this shock and contemplation and the search for a means to help another one. This is what humanity means – we are able to see things in the future, we can analyse a situation and plan and look for solutions accordingly. You can tell me that I am not concerned in a way – but it is my own will if I push away the misery I am aware of, or if I approach the problems and try to relieve them with the resources I dispose of.