Galloping in darkness
Not long after arriving in Ghana, I was brought around the Leprosarium at Weija to meet the cured lepers who lived there.
This is where I am based as part of a week volunteering assignment. Everyone was welcoming, some a little shy and curious of this stranger with a pale skin. When we came to Room C7, I was introduced to a tall man who sat outside at an easel with a paintbrush in his hand, eyes fixated on the page in front of him. His name was John Ampao.
Inside the gallery
We shook hands and he invited me into his makeshift gallery, dusting off a stool and gesturing for me to sit down. I was amazed at what I saw. The light blue walls were covered with art; beautiful paintings depicting various African designs, people, young and old - some dancing and singing - sunsets and natural scenes, all incredibly vivid pictures with so many wonderful colours.
I was a little surprised that that tiny space was hiding so many beauty. I asked him if he had painted everything there and he said he did. I then asked if he sells any paintings and his smile disappeared. He told me he once had his own gallery and a successful business but that everything changed when he was diagnosed with the Hansen's disease, more commonly known as leprosy.
Born in the Volta Region, O. John was interested in art from a very young age. He would look at drawings and pictures in books and one day he thought I could do that. After his formal education, John studied Visual Arts in Ghana before travelling to Nigeria to study Fine Art for four years. He then read Applied Art at the University of Lagos.
"I worked in some reputable companies for about four years before setting up my own personal company - Aktual Concept Publicity Co - in Lagos. We created signposts for businesses, van displays, printed magazines and I had my gallery," he said. Life was good for a while and during those 11 years, John trained many apprentices.
One morning in 2001, John woke up to find his body was swollen with thick, hard lumps, which were very itchy during the day and at night he felt serious heat and couldn't sleep. "I did not know it was leprosy because I never dreamt of this deadly disease in my life. I tried so many hospitals for medication but to no avail. For so many years, I was galloping in darkness," he said.
John eventually went to the Lagos University Teaching Hospital for medication and the doctor there advised him to go back to Ghana for thorough diagnosis and treatment. He told him to stop wasting money on 'hearsay' medicines.
"In fact, I heeded his advice, but by then I had lost most of my clients because nobody wanted to do business with someone who had been struck down with serious sores all over his body - permit me to say - like Job in the Bible days," John said.
With no money for food or his rent, he decided to sell his office equipment to enable him to travel back home for treatment.
"When I reached the station, no driver would take me and my family because of the sores on my body. People ran when they saw me. At this juncture, my wife was there for help and consolation. She chartered a taxi from Lagos to Ghana, about 1500 miles," John said.
Back to Ghana from Lagos
Back in Ghana, John’s family thought he would die. His family arranged for a coffin when they saw him. He wasn't allowed in the house and had to sleep outdoors.
"Then I was diagnosed [with leprosy] and admitted to the Ho Leprosarium in 2008," John said.
"In all these I believed in God for a quick recovery. At the hospital, all my family members refused and denied me. But to God be the glory, a doctor, only mentioned as Madam Grace, took it upon herself and took care of me with her own money. May God bless her abundantly. I started to respond to treatment. At the hospital, I picked up the brush again. I painted all I could and started to live again," he said.
People who were visiting the Ho Leprosarium saw John's paintings and liked them. One day, some members of the Lepers Aid Committee (LAC) came to Ho and told John that Very Rev. Fr Andrew Campbell, Chairman of the LAC, wanted him to go to Weija Leprosarium in Accra. Within a week, Fr Campbell had sent a bus to collect John and his family and bring them to Weija.
"At this time, I was told LAC would be visiting the President of Ghana. I drew and painted the President and presented it to him. I felt very special as my work was published," he said.
The Lepers Aid Committee (LAC) was set up in 1993 by Fr Andrew Nii Lantey Campbell, Parish Priest at Christ the King Catholic Church in Accra.
"The main aim of Lepers Aid Committee is to integrate lepers back into society. We want to make the lives of lepers across the country more comfortable. The stigmatisation on leprosy has lessened but there is scope for more awareness. Some families of affected victims are still not able to accept them due to misconceptions," said a committee spokesperson.
The committee organises various fund-raising activities throughout the year to sustain lepers by providing daily food and supplies for inmates at the leprosaria. LAC is a non-governmental organisation made up of volunteers of all ages.
On December 11 this year at Christ the King Parish Hall, an annual concert will be held in support of the Nkanchina project which will house a new Leprosarium and clinic. The National Symphony Orchestra and the Harmonious Choral will perform at this concert. The committee provides aid to many leprosaria apart from Weija. Individuals and companies make donations to the committee throughout the year, which are gratefully appreciated.
John has been living at Weija with his wife and family since November 2010. His children, Charles (15 years) is at the Accra High School (Form 1); Joshua (13 years) and Faith (aged 8) both attend the Gbawe Basic School and are classes 6 and 4 respectively
"At Weija, life is very normal. Every fortnight we receive rational portion of food items, bathing soaps and beans. In addition when we are sick, the Lepers Aid Committee takes care of our medication for free, also we don't pay for light or water bills," John said. “We also receive an allowance every month,” he added.
Lepers Aid Committee provides materials for John to paint and sketch. "May God bless Fr Campbell."
"My future plan is to have a gallery built for me anywhere in the city so that I can use my talent to help my children in their education. So I'm soliciting the public through the help of God, for this, so my dream comes true," John says.
As I took my leave of John, my attention was drawn to a painting on my right which stands out from the others. A young African lady is looking confidently in the mirror, one hand on her hip. The slogan reads, "Knock and it shall be opened." I hope the door opens for John very, very soon.