Mercy givers on the edge of nowhere
Concluding a two-part series, Tom Mitchell looks at the remarkable work of a Macau priest who brings hope to lepers in China's remotest areas
WHILE GUANGDONG PROVINCE has traditionally had the highest rate of leprosy cases on the mainland, victims of the disease can be found all across southern China, and as far north as Shandong. Hot spots include the south-western provinces of Yunnan, Guangxi and parts of Sichuan, where the warm, wet climate provides ideal conditions for the leprosy bacterium.
Luis Ruiz, a Jesuit priest and director of Casa Ricci Social Services in Macau, works in some of the mainland's most remote leper villages. As in the villages in Guangdong, the residents of southwest China's isolated hamlets have been cured of the disease. But they are ostracised by society because of the disfigurements they have suffered.
'We work with the poor,' Father Ruiz says, 'and the lepers are the poorest of the poor.' Casa Ricci has helped about 70 leper villages, which are home to some 6,000 patients. Eighteen are situated in remote areas of Guangdong.
One of them is on Da Jin, a lonely island off the coast. Some of the patients there have been confined to the island since 1959. Father Ruiz first visited Da Jin in 1986. 'They just threw [the leprosy victims] on the island,' he says. 'They were abandoned and hungry and dirty.' Casa Ricci has invested a lot of money in improving conditions at the village on Da Jin. 'This was the worst [leper village in Guangdong],' says Father Ruiz. 'Today it is the best.' Another 26 of the villages are in even more isolated areas of Yunnan and Sichuan. 'Compared with the leper villages in these provinces, the ones in Guangdong are rich,' he says. 'Many have no roads, no water, no electricity, no clothing and no food.' Some of the villages Casa Ricci has aided are hours from the nearest road. Father Ruiz and his team go wherever they are asked. 'If you don't go you don't understand,' he says.
Casa Ricci has a collection of photographs showing the terrain that has to be crossed to reach some villages. Many of the residents who have to negotiate this journey are amputees. Photos include shots of 87-year-old Father Ruiz, his team and their local guides traversing make-shift bridges erected over raging rivers, walking along narrow paths at the edge of sharp drop-offs, and being pulled along muddy paths in ox-drawn carts.
Father Daniel Cerezo Ruiz - vice-director of the Catholic Social Services Centre in Macau and no relation to Father Luis Ruiz - recalls a recent visit to a leper village in Sichuan. There was no path and the guide would not stop beating the grass. When asked what he was doing, the guide's reply was: 'Scaring away the snakes.' Casa Ricci has also located and helped villages in Yunnan, Fujian, Jiangxi, Hubei, Anhui, Jiangsu and Shandong - although in some cases it would be more accurate to say that the villages found Casa Ricci.
After one local nurse wrote an article in a mainland newspaper about the help Casa Ricci had provided to one leper village, letters from villages all over China began arriving at Father Luis Ruiz's office in Macau. 'Some of the letters we receive are frightening,' Father Ruiz says. 'It is impossible to say no.' Casa Ricci gives the poorest of the villagers a small stipend to supplement what little they get from the Government. In some areas patients receive as little as 40-50 yuan (about HK$37-$47) a month from the Government. In addition, at Christmas and Lunar New Year, Casa Ricci makes sure that the patients receive lai see packets.
Father Ruiz cannot say how much money Casa Ricci spends each month on the leper villages. In addition to the small cash stipends, it refurbishes buildings, pays for medicines, builds new wells and improves access roads.
'I don't think of money. We can't work as businessmen. We go ahead not knowing what will happen. We are a little crazy that way. You give and you receive, and it really is a miracle how money comes.
'I don't know how people find me,' he adds as a staff member hands him a US$3,000 (about HK$23,400) cheque just in from an Italian benefactor. Casa Ricci also has a collection of letters received from the villagers it has aided.
'Whenever we were suffering from starvation and cold we received your sympathy,' reads one letter from Leibo village in Sichuan. 'We were embraced with your warmth. Thank you also for drilling the four wells of hygienic drinking water.' Tom Mitchell (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Post's Guangzhou correspondent Graphic: lmap01gfa