A tiny, frail lady – her silver grey hair tucked under a white head scarf with a red floral trim – stands defiantly at a relief camp she set up for minority people displaced by Pakistan’s recent deadly flooding. Eighty-one-year-old German nun Ruth Pfau is surveying the needs of hundreds whose homes were washed away.
“We only go into these camps where, for some reason or other, nobody else is willing or able, or ever thought of helping them,” Dr Pfau explained.
She trained Pakistani doctors and attracted foreign donations, building leprosy clinics across the country. “Working with Dr Pfau is very, very difficult, because she has such immense stamina, that I don’t think anyone can match,” said Mervyn Lobo, the organisation’s national co-ordinator, who has travelled with her for more than 11 years.
Born in the German city of Leipzig in 1929, Ruth Pfau grew up fearing for her life as first Allied forces bombed her town during the Second World War, then Russian forces ran amok. She saw her younger brother die, was forced to steal wood and coal for heating food and risked her own life escaping East Germany.
“If I give any sense to these years, it is a preparation to be ready to help others,” she explained. After completing a medical degree and joining a French Roman Catholic Order, she decided to leave for India.
But diverted to Pakistan while waiting for her visa in 1958, she was to stumble upon leprosy, a disease she had never heard of in a country she did not know existed. “Well if it doesn’t hit you the first time, I don’t think it will ever hit you,” she recalled, after first seeing leprosy during a visit to a makeshift dispensary built on a disused graveyard in Karachi.
“Actually the first patient who really made me decide was a young Pathan. “He must have been my age, I was at this time not yet 30, and he crawled on hands and feet into this dispensary, acting as if this was quite normal, as if someone has to crawl there through that slime and dirt on hands and feet, like a dog.”
Tears of happiness
Soon after, the clinic was moved from the makeshift dispensary to a two-storey nursing home in Karachi, which became Dr Pfau’s new headquarters. Dr Pfau’s compassion for people like Bundu Sheikh have drawn comparisons with Mother Teresa. The Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre is now eight storeys high, staffed by former patients and children of patients and houses a hospital.
On the outskirts of Hyderabad, Dr Pfau received a warm welcome from a former leprosy patient Bundu Sheikh, during one of her visits. Covered in dust with bright, dyed-orange hair, he greeted Dr Pfau with a huge hug and raced out so fast he forgot his shoes.
He is now a cleaner with a deformed nose and no feeling in either leg, living in a makeshift shack on the roadside. When asked how important Dr Pfau has been in his life, he cried tears of happiness. “Without her,” he said, “I’d be in the hands of God. “She is not just a doctor, not just an ordinary person, not just a mother, but a Messiah.”
Key to Dr Pfau’s huge success in saving people’s lives and bringing leprosy under control by the mid-1990s was winning over Pakistan’s leaders. They were hesitant to help at first but soon appointed her the country’s federal advisor on leprosy. She said the government was an essential partner. “We are like a Pakistani marriage. It was an arranged marriage because it was necessary. We always and only fought with each other. But we never could go in for divorce because we had too many children.”
Having won over the establishment and created such a strong and widespread network of doctors, Dr Pfau used the opportunity to tackle tuberculosis and partial blindness. She has also assisted the country’s many forgotten displaced people and rescued victims from the 2005 earthquake and floods of 2010.
Her determination and selfless service explain why many see her in the same light as another European-born nun – Mother Teresa, winner of a Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her services to the poor and dispossessed of India. Dr Pfau said that, though she greatly appreciated and admired Mother Teresa, in reality the similarities between them were few.
She said her focus was on removing the root of the problem – not just dealing with its symptoms – the same ethos that has served her so well over the years in Pakistan when dealing with poor, displaced and marginalised people. “The most important thing is that we give them their dignity back,” she insisted.