My Life as a Leper—Joyful and Spiritually Blessed
AS TOLD BY ISAIAH ADAGBONA
I grew up in Akure, Nigeria. My family farmed yams, bananas, cassava, and cocoa. My father did not want me to go to school. He said to me: “You are a farmer. No one will ever ask you to read yams.”
STILL, I wanted to learn to read. In the evenings, I stood and listened at the window of a home where some children were being taught by a private teacher. That was in 1940 when I was about 12 years old. When the father of the children would see me, he would shout and chase me away. But I kept coming back. Sometimes the teacher did not come, and I would sneak in and look at the children’s books with them. Sometimes they let me borrow their books. That was how I learned to read.
I Join God’s People
In time I got a Bible and regularly read it before going to bed. One evening I read Matthew chapter 10, which shows that Jesus’ disciples would be hated and persecuted by men.
I remembered that Jehovah’s Witnesses had come to my house and were treated badly. It struck me that these might be the people Jesus had talked about. The next time the Witnesses called, I obtained a magazine from them. As I began to associate with them, I became a target of ridicule. Yet, the more that people tried to discourage me, the more convinced and joyful I became that I had found the true religion.
What really impressed me about the Witnesses was that, unlike the other religious groups in my area, they did not mix their worship with the customs and traditions of the local pagan religion. For example, although my family went to the Anglican church, my father kept a shrine to the Yoruba god Ogun.
After my father died, I was supposed to inherit the shrine. I did not want it, since I knew that the Bible condemns idolatry. I progressed spiritually with Jehovah’s help, and in December 1954, I was baptized.
Earlier that year, I noticed swelling and a loss of feeling in my feet. If I stepped on hot coals, there was no pain. After some time, reddish ulcers appeared on my forehead and lips. Neither I nor my family knew what was wrong; we thought it was eczema. I went to 12 herbalists looking for a cure. Finally one of them told us that it was leprosy.
What a shock that was! I was upset and did not sleep well. I had nightmares. But my knowledge of Bible truth and reliance on Jehovah helped me look to the future with confidence.
People told my mother that if I went to an oracle to offer sacrifices, I would get better. I refused to go, knowing that such an act would displease Jehovah. Realizing that my mind was made up on the matter, my mother’s friends suggested that she take a kola nut and touch my forehead with it. Then she could present the kola nut to the oracle to use in sacrifices on my behalf. I wanted no part of that and told her so. Finally she gave up her efforts to involve me in pagan religion.
By the time I went to the hospital, the leprosy had taken a firm hold. I had ulcers all over my body. At the hospital, they gave me drugs, and gradually my skin returned to normal.
They Thought I Was Dead
But my problems were far from over. My right foot became badly infected, and in 1962 it had to be amputated. After the operation, there were medical complications. The doctors did not expect me to live. A white missionary priest came to administer the last rites. I was too weak to speak, but a nurse told him that I was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The priest said to me: “Do you want to change and become a Catholic so that you can go to heaven?” That made me laugh inside. I prayed to Jehovah for the strength to answer. With great effort I managed to say, “No!” The priest turned and walked away.
My condition worsened until the hospital staff thought I was dead. They covered my face with a sheet. They did not take me to the mortuary, though, since a doctor or a nurse first had to certify that I was dead. There was no doctor on duty, and the nurses had all gone to a party. So they left me in the ward overnight. When the doctor made his rounds the next morning, no one came to my bed because I was still covered up and presumed dead. Eventually, somebody noticed that the “corpse” under the sheet was moving!
Well, I recovered, and in December 1963 they moved me to the Abeokuta Leprosy Hospital Settlement in southwest Nigeria. I have lived there ever since.
Opposition to My Preaching
There were about 400 lepers in the settlement when I arrived, and I was the only Witness. I wrote to the Society, and they responded promptly by directing the Akomoje Congregation to contact me. So I never lost touch with the brothers.
As soon as I got to the settlement, I began preaching. The local pastor was not happy about that, and he reported me to the welfare officer who was in charge of the camp. The welfare officer was an older man who came from Germany. He told me that I had no business teaching the Bible because I had no schooling or certificate to do so; since I was unqualified, I would teach people incorrectly. If I persisted, I could be expelled from the settlement and denied medical treatment. He did not allow me to say anything in reply.
Next he issued a directive that no one should study the Bible with me. As a result, those who had shown interest stopped coming to me.
I took the matter to Jehovah in prayer, asking for wisdom and direction. The next Sunday, I went to the Baptist church at the settlement, although I did not participate in the religious services. There was a period during the service when those present could ask questions. I raised my hand and asked: “If all good people are going to heaven and all bad people are going someplace else, why does Isaiah 45:18 say that God made the earth to be inhabited?”
There was much murmuring among the congregation. Finally, the missionary pastor said that we cannot figure out the ways of God. With that, I answered my own question by reading scriptures that show that 144,000 will go to heaven, that the wicked will perish, and that righteous people will live on the earth forever.—Psalm 37:10, 11; Revelation 14:1, 4.
Everyone clapped in appreciation for the answer. The pastor then said: “Clap a second time because this man really knows the Bible.” After the service, some came to me and said: “You know more than the pastor does!”
Pressure to Expel Me Continues
That broke the back of the persecution, and people again joined me to study the Bible. However, there remained opposers who pressured the welfare officer to get rid of me. About a month after the church service, he called me and said: “Why do you keep on preaching? In my country, people do not like Jehovah’s Witnesses, and it is the same here. Why do you cause me trouble? Do you not know that I can expel you?”
I replied: “Papa, I respect you for three reasons. First, because you are older than I am, and the Bible says we should give respect to gray hair. The second reason why I respect you is that you left your country to help us here. The third reason is that you are kind, generous, and assist those in distress. But by what right do you think you can expel me? The president of the country does not expel Jehovah’s Witnesses. The traditional ruler of this region does not expel us. Even if you do chase me away from this camp, Jehovah will still care for me.”
I had never before spoken in such a forthright way to him, and I could see that it made an impression. He walked away without a word. Later, when someone complained about me, he replied in frustration: “I am not going to involve myself with this business anymore. If you have a problem with his preaching, discuss it with him!”
The Literacy Class
Opposition to my preaching continued from those who attended the Baptist church at the camp. Then I had an idea. I went to the welfare officer and asked whether I might set up a literacy class. When he asked how much I wanted to be paid, I said I would teach for free.
They provided a classroom, blackboard, and chalk, so I began teaching some inmates to read. We held classes every day. For the first 30 minutes, I would teach reading, then I would relate and explain a story from the Bible. Afterward, we would read the account from the Bible.
One student was a woman named Nimota. She had a deep interest in spiritual things and would ask religious questions at both the church and the mosque. She did not get her questions answered there, so she would come to ask me. Eventually, she dedicated her life to Jehovah and was baptized. In 1966 we were married.
Most in our congregation today learned to read and write in that literacy class. I did not have the wisdom to suggest that class. Certainly Jehovah’s blessing was evident. No one tried to stop me from preaching after that.
A Kingdom Hall in the Camp
By the time Nimota and I were married, four of us were meeting regularly to study The Watchtower together. For about a year, we met in the room where leprous wounds were washed. Then the welfare officer, who had by now become my friend, said to me: “It is not good that you worship your God in a treatment room.”
He said that we could meet in a vacant carpenter’s shed. In time, that shed was transformed into a Kingdom Hall. In 1992, with the help of the brothers in town, we completed it. As you can see from the picture on page 24, our hall is a sound building—plastered and painted, with a concrete floor and a good roof.
Preaching to Those With Leprosy
For 33 years my territory has been the leprosy settlement. What is it like to preach to lepers? Here in Africa most people believe that all things come from God. So when they are afflicted with leprosy, they believe that God is somehow responsible. Some are deeply depressed about their condition. Others are angry and say: “Don’t talk to us about a God who is loving and merciful. If that were true, this sickness would go away!” Then we read and reason on James 1:13, which says: ‘With evil things God does not try anyone.’ Next we explain why Jehovah allows disease to afflict people, and we point to his promise of a paradise earth where no one will be sick.—Isaiah 33:24.
Many have responded favorably to the good news. Since I came to this camp, Jehovah has used me to help over 30 persons to dedication and baptism, all lepers. Many have returned to their homes after being cured, and a few have died. Now we have 18 Kingdom publishers, and about 25 people attend meetings regularly. Two of us serve as elders, and we have one ministerial servant and one regular pioneer. How happy I am to see so many now faithfully serving Jehovah in this camp! When I came here, I feared I would be alone, but Jehovah has blessed me in a wonderful way.
The Joy of Serving My Brothers
I took drugs for leprosy from 1960 until about five years ago. Now I am completely cured, as are the others in the congregation. The leprosy left its mark—I lost my lower leg, and I cannot straighten my hands—but the disease is gone.
Since I am cured, some have asked why I do not leave the camp and go back home. There are several reasons why I stay, but the main one is that I want to continue helping my brothers here. The joy of looking after Jehovah’s sheep surpasses anything my family might give me if I returned to them.
I am so grateful that I knew Jehovah before I learned I had leprosy. Otherwise, I might have killed myself. There have been many difficulties and problems over the years, but it was not the medicine that sustained me—it was Jehovah. When I reflect on the past, I am joyful; and when I think of the future under God’s Kingdom, I am even more joyful.
[Box on page 25]
Leprosy Fact Sheet
What Is It?
Modern-day leprosy is a disease caused by a bacillus identified in 1873 by Armauer Hansen. In recognition of his work, doctors also refer to leprosy as Hansen’s disease.
The bacillus damages nerves, bones, eyes, and certain organs. Sensation is lost, often in the hands and feet. Unchecked, the disease can cause severe mutilation of the face and of the extremities. It seldom kills.
Is There a Cure?
People having mild forms of leprosy get well with no treatment whatsoever. More serious cases can be cured with drugs.
The first antileprosy drug, introduced in the 1950’s, acted slowly and became increasingly ineffective because the leprosy bacillus developed resistance to it. New drugs were developed, and from the early 1980’s, Multi-Drug Therapy (MDT) became the standard treatment worldwide. This treatment combines the use of three drugs—Dapsone, Rifampicin, and Clofazimine. While MDT kills the bacillus, it does not repair damage already done.
MDT is highly effective in curing the disease. Consequently, the number of people with leprosy has plummeted from 12 million in 1985 to about 1.3 million by mid-1996.
How Contagious Is It?
Leprosy is not highly contagious; most people have immune systems strong enough to counter it. When it does occur, it usually does so in people who live in prolonged close contact with those who are infected.
Doctors do not know for sure how the bacillus enters the human body, but they suspect that it does so through the skin or nose.
Leprosy is targeted for “elimination as a public health problem” by the year 2000. This means that the number of cases of leprosy in any community will not exceed 1 in 10,000 people. Under God’s Kingdom it will be done away with completely.—Isaiah 33:24.
Sources: World Health Organization; International Federation of Anti-Leprosy Associations; and Manson’s Tropical Diseases, 1996 Edition.
[Box on page 27]
Is Leprosy Today the Same as in Bible Times?
Medical textbooks today define leprosy in precise terms; the scientific name for the microbe involved is Mycobacterium leprae. The Bible, of course, is not a medical textbook. The Hebrew and Greek words that are translated “leprosy” in many Bible translations are much broader in meaning. For example, the Bible leprosy produced observable symptoms not only in humans but also in clothing and houses, something that a bacillus does not do.—Leviticus 13:2, 47; 14:34.
Furthermore, the symptoms in humans that identify leprosy today do not exactly match the description of leprosy in Bible times. Some suggest that the explanation may lie in the fact that the nature of diseases changes with the passage of time. Others believe that the leprosy referred to in the Bible describes a range of diseases, which may or may not include the disease caused by M. leprae.
The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament states that both the Greek and the Hebrew word usually translated leprosy “refer to the same ailment, or group of ailments . . . Whether this sickness is what we now call leprosy may be questioned. But the precise medical identification of the disease does not affect our estimation of the accounts of healing [of lepers by Jesus and his disciples].”
[Picture on page 24]
The congregation outside the Kingdom Hall in the leper camp
[Picture on page 26]
Isaiah Adagbona and his wife, Nimota