Anandwan: The Forest of Joy

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I am not sure what people picture when they are asked to conjure up an image of a leper colony. I think in the West people need to first be reminded that leprosy still exists, and that it’s not just a disease found in Bible stories. Maybe some have seen the film Motorcycle Diaries, where during a trip across South America Che Guevara visits an island inhabited by leprosy patients. Kept isolated and bandaged the patients are not allowed to share a glove-less touch with those who aren’t infected. Whatever the image, I don’t think its one of a flourishing community, one supportive of a self-sufficient economy, and filled with people who are cured, in marriages and working as artisans, clerks, carpenters, welders, barbers, teachers and nurses.

This is the picture of Aandwan, also touched by a revolutionary – Baba Amte. And while I won’t exaggerate by drawing comparisons to Jesus and Che, I will point out that by the time he was thirty, Baba left a lucrative law career to work with the poorest, most dejected people in his community.One evening while traveling home he came across a a man lying naked in the street suffering from leprosy and he was forever changed. As many before him, he saw a population in need and wanted to do something. But he was indignant of charity, and instead sought ways that the patients, once cured of their disease but still often disabled, could live and prosper largely on their own. This was the birth of Anandwan, a self sustaining commune. Today the commune is home to 2,200 people – where nearly everything is manufactured and produced on the grounds – short of petrol, sugar and salt. The people grow their own food, manufacture their own clothes, run their own schools. They even process the bricks used to construct their buildings, and weld the frames of the wheelchairs they’ve designed. Baba’s son says the philosophy of ‘Anandwan is a mix of Ghandi, Marxism and romanticism, without any gimmicks.’ Baba died in 2008, but during his lifetime was the recipient of many international awards including the Templeton Prize and the United Nations Human Rights Prize.

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Compassion, not pity, is the pervasive attitude throughout the commune. The schools are primarily for those children who are blind, deaf and mute. Art and creativity is encouraged – music is taught to the blind, studio art and crafts to the deaf. Because leprosy damages the nerves that give feeling to the extremities, patients no longer have full use of their hands and feet – and without the protection of feeling pain they often injure themselves permanently. The need to learn, with limited mobility to move in a new way. Baba said that most immediately they need a renewed sense of self-esteem, and only then can practical skills be taught. And they can. While visiting Anandwan I was given a haircut by a former patient. It cost less than a dollar, and while the straight razor left a few nicks, it looks good.

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 (Above: Jyotsna, Prassant and Aashna watch as former patients operate industrial weaving machines)
Our visit to Anandwan, located in the northwest region of Maharashtra, lasted less than 48 hours. It was long enough to take in something unique, and a new source of inspiration. It’s difficult to talk about inspiration without cliche and hackneyed sentiment. I come here from a place full of physically healthy people who are educated and determined. Yet, nearly every single day in the US we hear about a poor economy, an endangered ecology and a lost confidence in what politics to worship. Yet here, from the center of a forest, people have found a way to live in balance. I am not sure what relevance this model has for the outside world, but I will remember this place full of pragmatic people, who have been led by someone who believed that the answers to our poverty and suffering are found in the strength of our hands.

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