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In the shadow of a saint

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By Owei Lakemfa
I am not a Catholic, was never one and may never be. But one of my
childhood heroes was a man called Father Damian. I am not sure whether in the innocence of childhood, I ever associated him with Catholicism.

I came across him in the Primary III/IV history book we used at the Araromi Baptist School, Lagos. Usually, a few paragraphs summarising a famous person’s story, the book, I think written by a Fadahunsi,  told the story of a selfless man who choose to go and work with ostracised lepers, treating and giving them comfort and in the process, contacting the disease. It was a Christ-like story that stuck.

In those days, I lived in Lagos where there were lots of beggars, many of them, victims of leprosy. People threw coins and food at them. We were taught that it was an highly contagious disease which had no cure. It was fatal contacting it and that under no circumstance were we to have bodily contact with lepers.

Some today compare the stigmatization of HIV/AIDS victims with that of leprosy; this is a mismatch. While an HIV/AIDS victim can carry the disease concealed with no outward indication, the leper carries the disease like a placard; the disfigurement is there for all to see. Also, while the latter can be touched and can and should freely live with their loved ones and the rest of society, this was not possible with the leper.

There was even a common saying that if you offer a leper an handshake, he would forget his state and demand an embrace. Yet another sad one: A proverb that states that while a leper cannot milk a cow, he can upturn the milk bucket.

With all these, there was confusion in my young mind; how can an healthy person like Father Damian sacrifice his health and life in such a way ? Or was it  suicide? Later in youth, I came to realise that it was sacrifice; one of the highest anybody can make. I came to know that life is useless without a worthy cause; that to live and die for a cause is not to die.

These are the lessons the lives of people like Patrice Lumumba, Malcolm X and Father Damian teach.
Reading about Father Damian, and another courageous person in the book, Helen Keller who was both deaf-mute and blind, helped when I went to secondary school. The Methodist Boys High School, Lagos had a policy of admitting physically challenged boys. Two of them in my set were deaf-mute. As boys, we played, fought and studied together. One of them, Sanya Ogunmefun and I were in the same class for five years and we inevitably became good friends into adulthood.

To me, Father Damian was the ultimate in sacrifice; he knew what he was going into, had the option  of not going to the leper colony on the Molokai Island of Hawaii, but he offered himself and his health, faced the inevitable ostracization that must have come with it, and embraced death. He could have pursued a career in his chosen field and risen to be a cardinal or even a Pope, but he shunned all that and in the process, gave humanity one of the most enduring and legendary examples of selflessness and martyrdom.

Sometimes the stories of Father Damian and Helen Keller crossed my mind but they seem to be part of my fading memories. You can imagine how my memory was jolted when on Sunday October 11, 2009 I heard on radio that the Catholic Church had made Father Damian a saint. I told myself: ‘Wait a minute, I know that name, that must be the Father Damian of my childhood!’

A light research showed that he was the same person. Born Jozef De Veuster, Father Damian who was Belgian had died of leprosy in 1889 in Hawaii. A decade ago, a now 80-year old retired school teacher, Ms Audrey Toguchi residing in Hawaii, had lung cancer .

She said she prayed to Father Damian and recovered from the disease. The Vatican ruled that this was a miracle and the process of elevating to sainthood, my childhood hero had began. This culminated in the ceremony at the Vatican  where in the presence of some 50,000 pilgrims filling Saint Peter’s Basilica and St Peter’s Square, Father Damian and four others were elevated to sainthood.

Pope Benedict  in his homily  said of the new saints: “ Their perfection, in the logic of a faith that is humanly incomprehensible at times, consists in no longer placing themselves at the centre but choosing to go against the flow and live according to the Gospel”. He said Father Damian “ not without fear and repugnance, chose to go to Molokai and risked his health to serve the leprosy patients who were there, abandoned by all; and went on to feel at home with them”.

President Barack Obama who was born in Hawaii 72  years after Father Damian’s death, said he is familiar with this story of service and sacrifice. Perhaps if I had known that Father Damian  symbolised the ideals of  Catholicism , I might early in life have gravitated towards the Church. Elevating Father Damian to sainthood has further elevated my respect for the Catholic Church.

At the secular and personal level, because  it produced Father Damian, I am willing to forgive a few of Belgium’s atrocious colonial and neo colonial history especially in the Congo. While Father Damian was sacrificing for humanity, the leader of his homeland, King Leopold II from 1885  was maiming, killing and looting in Africa. It is an historical irony that Belgium produced simultaneously a priest who became a saint and, a king who was a vicious one armed bandit.

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