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Ending Leprosy in the Congo

MAF’s partnership with American Leprosy Missions

Kembwa first noticed the patches on her skin a few years ago—small pink rashes—nothing more.

But the patches spread…

The nurse at the local hospital in Gemena was the first to give Kembwa the news—news that would change her life forever. There in that Congolese hospital, Kembwa heard a word that would come to define her—leprosy.

Kembwa’s husband divorced her. She was chased away from her house. Her relatives disowned her. She became homeless. In her despondency, Kembwa abandoned the church and the God she felt had abandoned her.

American Leprosy Missions estimates nearly 4 million people around the world suffer from this dreaded disease. Leprosy still bears the stigma that burdened the people affected by leprosy in Jesus’ day. It not only numbs and mars its victims; it often leads to expulsion from their community and family.

“Leprosy is still a problem in the Congo,” said Bill Simmons, president and CEO of American Leprosy Missions. “The lack of access to healthcare is the reason the disease has perpetuated.”

Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) works alongside American Leprosy Missions to bring leprosy’s cure to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). MAF provides vital support and flies American Leprosy Missions’ staff and a local doctor, Jacques Kongawi, to the remote regions of the DRC where the disease is most prevalent.

Dr. Kongawi provides treatment for Kembwa. Photo courtesy of Dr. Jacques Kongawi.
Dr. Kongawi provides treatment for Kembwa. Photo courtesy of Dr. Jacques Kongawi.

“Access is a big problem in the DRC. We fly with MAF because there are no roads,” said Jim Oehrig, Chief Programme Officer of American Leprosy Missions. “We have to find the people who have leprosy and diagnose them to be able to work with them.”

Dr. Kongawi works with these people in the northern parts of the country, where access is most limited. In addition to medical care, he helps provide housing, the means to make a living, and, ultimately, community. MAF pilot David Francis flies Dr. Kongawi regularly as he works to treat the Congolese affected by leprosy.

“They just throw them [the people with leprosy] out into the jungle. They banish them,” said Francis. “Part of Dr. Kongawi’s engagement philosophy is that once people see they are not that abnormal, that they have a normal looking house and goods to buy, the people accept them [back into society].”

Kembwa met Dr. Kongawi after she had been abandoned by her family. He arranged for American Leprosy Missions to build her a new house for her and helped her start a business selling soap, coffee, and other goods.

“Kembwa’s life has really changed,” said Kongawi. “In spite of her disability she is living a good life.”

As the partnership between MAF and American Leprosy Missions continues, Kongawi is hopeful the end is in sight for leprosy in DRC. A cure for leprosy exists, it just depends on being able to find and diagnose patients.

“In 2005, the number of newly detected leprosy cases [in Gemena] was 704. Last year we detected only 140 new cases,” said Kongawi. “I am sure that leprosy will disappear in our country, especially with the research into a vaccine that American Leprosy Missions is funding.”

“We are excited to work with MAF to fight leprosy,” said Simmons.

After 12 months of treatment, Kembwa was finally cured of leprosy. She was baptized and is now active in a local church. American Leprosy Missions and Kongawi look forward to working with MAF to finally bring an end to this terrible disease, so others like Kembwa will no longer live in fear of hearing the word leprosy.


Story originally appeared in FlightWatch, November 2013.


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