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An Episcopal, co-educational 100% boarding school in Middletown, Delaware for grades 9 – 12

"Another Look at Death": Convocation 2020 featuring Deriba Olana
Deriba Olana


Math teacher Deriba Olana delivered this 2020 Convocation talk to the school community on Wednesday, September 16.

As many of you know, I grew up in Ethiopia. One Sunday afternoon, when I was 13 years old, my friend Vignesh and I were biking near his house. Vignesh lived next to a big hospital called ALERT, on the Western edge of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.

Turning around a corner, we saw three or four children, who couldn’t have been more than ten years old, running toward us, and screaming with eccentrically husky voices. I squeezed my brakes, got off the bike and stood startled, hands still gripping the breaks. As I looked at them, the children turned away, correctly reading the fear and involuntary aversion in my eyes.

It was some years later that I realized those children simply wanted to play. What took me long to recognize this? The children had leprosy. Leprosy is a chronic, infectious disease affecting the skin, the peripheral nerves, and the mucous membrane of the nose, throat and eyes. The disease is caused by bacteria that attack the peripheral nerves, leading to loss of sensation. The combination of loss of sensation and gradual tissue degeneration often deforms and erodes fingers and toes.

Leprosy had made frightening inroads on the small bodies of the children. With missing eyebrows, disfigured noses and shrivelled fingers, they didn’t look like children I played with. Their hoarse voices, another symptom of leprosy, also made me anxious. But that doesn’t adequately explain why it took me long to appreciate what those children wanted that day.

I knew Vignesh lived next to a leprosy hospital. I had previously seen lepers there, and in other places around the country. The vivid deformities caused by the disease were not new to my eyes. What was new at that time was lepers who wanted something that gratifies every child: ​playing​. Those children wanted to play. The lepers wanted to play with ​me​. They knew I was enjoying myself on the bike. And a voice deep in their souls seemed to say to them, “You too were made for the joy of playing.” Of course, I didn’t hear that voice. What I heard was the startling phonation produced by vocal cords coarsened by leprosy.

A few years later, I became friends with Roland and Birgitta Kazen, who were from Sweden. The Kazens were Vignesh’s neighbors, and worked at ALERT, the leprosy hospital that housed the children who wanted to play with me. We met because Roland was the organist and choir conductor of the Seventh-day Adventist church in the center of Addis Ababa, where I also attended. During church service, after playing the offertory, he left his organ bench and sat next to his wife, Birgitta, to hear the Amharic sermon translated to English. For several months, I was their translator.

Prior to working with lepers, the Kazens lived in Sweden. In 1975, Roland, who was a doctor, was asked to direct Masanga Leprosy Hospital in the West African country of Sierra Leone. From what Birgitta recently told me, they knew very little about leprosy at that time. So, they read everything they could find about the disease. They learned how ​mycobacterium leprae​ insidiously lingers in the nervous system, causing loss of sensation, and how the lack of sensation makes lepers inattentive to bruises and cuts that lead to gruesome ulcers.

Significantly, the Kazens also learned leprosy ​could​ be cured. Birgitta told me how heartened they felt to learn that physiotherapy and reconstructive surgery could go a long way in restoring some measure of functionality in hands, feet and faces paralyzed by leprosy. And because Roland was a surgeon, they decided to accept the call. So, they sold their house, packed up and went to Sierra Leone with their three teenage children.

At Masanga, the Kazens were totally immersed in helping lepers. Roland asked their daughter to take pictures of different surgical procedures in the operation theatre. He would later use those pictures for teaching. The rest of the children, after studying in the morning, took toys and picture books to the children at the hospital, and ​played​ with them. They played with children who were being treated for leprosy. Birgitta told me, those early years with their children in Sierra Leone were among the happiest of their lives.

Roland loved his work. He loved his patients, and his patients loved him. While at Masanga, he developed and refined new surgical techniques—especially in hand surgery. Because of this, medical professionals from neighboring countries came to Masanga for training.  

Birgitta headed vocational training programs for cured patients. After treatment at the hospital, young, former patients were trained for two years in carpentry, tailoring or agriculture. Upon graduating, they were presented with sewing machines or toolboxes. Then they got help to return to their homes and start a new life.  

Birgitta especially designed a program for women, who had suffered rejection from their husbands and families because of leprosy. When discharged from the hospital, this program gave each woman a supply of rice, sugar and oil to start a small business. Estranged family members, who believed leprosy was a death sentence saw the spiritual and economic rehabilitation of these women. This happy turn of events helped the cured women gain acceptance in their villages. Birgitta also took special interest in the orphans who had leprosy. She helped build a home and school for them.

After 14 years of service in Masanga, Roland was asked to work at ALERT hospital in Addis Ababa. ALERT, which stands for All-Africa Leprosy and Rehabilitation Training Center, is a big international institution with advanced medical and surgical care for leprosy patients. It is also a research center, with training programs for Ethiopian medical students, as well as professionals, who come from all around the world. Birgitta worked as International Training Coordinator.

Leprosy Review, a peer reviewed medical journal, called Roland “one of the outstanding reconstructive surgeons in the field of leprosy.” Indeed, it was not uncommon to hear or read moving stories about his surgical work. But I never saw him put on airs and act like Ethiopia owed him much for his medical expertise. In fact, unless asked, he and Birgitta never spoke about their work. That wasn’t because they were reclusive. The Kazens were socially open, and very interested in mentoring young people with dreams.

Whenever I talked to them, I always got the impression that they thought highly of me. I especially shared with Roland some of my nebulous dreams, because he listened with deep interest, encouraging me with his indelibly friendly eyes. Though he was more artistically refined than most musicians I know, he happily played the flute when I played the piano for congregational songs. Now and then, after we were done playing, he would gently give me musical suggestions, some of which I would understand a decade later.

One year before I finished high school, war broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea along the Northern border. Since I was assigned to study at a college almost one hundred miles away from that war-racked border, my future was uncertain. Many kind people who understood the situation helped me come to America to study. Among those who tirelessly worked to give me an academic future were Roland and Birgitta.

While I was in college, the Kazens retired and moved back to Sweden. A few years later, we found each other on Skype. I learned then that Roland had just returned from Ethiopia and was preparing to go to Tanzania. “But didn’t you retire?” I asked. With audible excitement, Roland said something to the effect of, “Yes, that’s why I can now focus more on what I enjoy doing. I have no administrative responsibilities, so I’m spending more time training medical students in Ethiopia and Tanzania. With others, we are also writing a textbook on reconstructive surgery for leprosy. That way the quality of service patients get will not suffer in our absence.”

Three years after our conversation, Dr. Kazen became ill and died.

To me, the Kazens are enduringly inspiring. They carried themselves with a simplicity and intelligent kindness that encouraged friendship. Their interactions with Ethiopians were not awkward or stilted. I never heard them complain about the hardships of living in a country scarred by many years of war. They didn’t say it in words, but their devoted service made it emphatically clear that they loved Ethiopians and Africans with a near-patriotic zeal.

Surgeons of Roland’s caliber earn far more money in Europe and America than he did in Africa. But for me, it is his noble spirit that towers above the geniuses pushing the frontiers of medical research at Hopkins or Harvard. With the passing of time, his legacy means more to me. It is by looking at his and Birgitta’s lives that I began to understand the fear and involuntary aversion I felt when the ​leprous​ children ran to me. 

Disease is a harbinger of death. And death, though always near our bodies, is often kept as far away from the mind as possible. Merely mentioning certain diseases can disturb polite conversation. To have loved ones suffering from a terminal disease can be especially vexing—I know so from personal experience. Yet there is nothing more naturally human than disease and death. In spite of our fondest wishes, we cannot escape them. Paradoxically, though, both are often seen as intrusions into the happy lives we feel we are entitled to. Their “sudden” appearance is a dreadful inconvenience that must be escaped at any cost.

That sense of cold dread that seized me when I saw the ​leprous​ children is, I believe, rooted in the fear of death. There is no greater injustice than what savage leprosy did to the bodies of those children. Seeing their faces, hands and feet, I intuitively felt the indiscriminate appetite of death. I was biking near their hospital for pleasure. Even though I knew there were lepers in the vicinity, I did not expect to witness the vicious stamp of physical consumption on the bodies of children that day. And so I reflexively stood in stunned aversion.

Death is central to Christianity because death is at the center of human life. You could say Christianity is a disciplined protest against death. The central figure of Christianity is an innocent man, crying to God while being tortured to death. But He refused to retaliate, and instead forgave His tormentors while under agony. Turning away from that sense of entitlement that makes the compulsion for revenge irresistible, He absorbed humiliation with a dignity that only love could muster. There was no angry glance, or a desperate curse. Only an innocent, forgiving man, crying to God while being tortured to death. Ever since His cry was heard, that brilliant spectacle of disciplined suffering and protest has been at war with injustice.

The manner in which Jesus died reveals how God feels about violence. Wherever there is torture, God is tortured. When leprosy intrudes on the development of innocent children and consumes their tender bodies, God is consumed with grief. 

This miraculous grief tells me that God is in solidarity with human suffering. Knowing about God’s grief encourages the oppressed, and compels spiritually sensitive folks like the Kazens to leave Sweden and go to Sierra Leone. That is why I say God’s grief is miraculous.

As Christians, Roland and Birgitta would never dispute that leprosy is a loathsome intruder, because it is. They would argue that the reflexive aversion I felt when I saw the leprous children is a response rooted in the intuition that such a thing should not happen to a creature made in the image of God. But that aversion needs to be tamed with education; otherwise it will become a panicked revulsion. And, as you know, people in panic can be destructive to themselves and others.

How does Christianity tame this instinctive aversion? In the New Testament we see Jesus touching and healing lepers. Jesus did not touch lepers to put on a show of daring compassion. He touched them to acknowledge their humanity before healing them. By touching them, He was confirming that their bodies, though desecrated by leprosy, were still sacred and precious to Him.

In ravaging the body, leprosy also exposes its victims to the indignities of ridicule and isolation. By walking among lepers, Jesus went against the grain of human revulsion and stigma. This simple yet profoundly counterintuitive wisdom of Jesus is what inspired the courageous lives and work of the Kazens. And it is one reason that compels me to believe Jesus wasn’t merely human.  

Christianity refuses to accept leprosy with fear and resignation. It is fixed on redemption and rehabilitation. It is preoccupied with healing and recovery. But it doesn’t preach healing from a cowardly distance. God, in the person of Jesus, touched and, I believe, healed lepers.

Inspired by Jesus, the Kazens left a materially comfortable life in Sweden to live in the midst of lepers. Their children played with leprous children. With his steady fingers, Roland touched the sore fingers and lesions of lepers, on the operating table. Birgitta labored for the social rehabilitation of those who recovered from leprosy. And together, their reconstructive vision and action healed bodies and hearts.

Reconstructive surgery requires faith and vision. It is a discipline that fights for rehabilitation in a body that seems to be irreversibly hurrying to decomposition. Before entering the operating theatre, the surgeon must have a clear understanding of the damaged body, and a tangible vision of a redeemed form.  Educated imagination is what guides the surgeon’s hands towards an anatomical reconstruction as near as possible to wholeness.

Disfigured bodies disturb and repulse ordinary eyes. It takes extraordinary vision to recognize the possibility of wholeness and perfection in human forms ravaged by disease. Reconstructive vision refuses to accept as inevitable the unsightly progress of bodily decay. But it doesn’t simply protest from a distance. It touches the diseased wound, and fights decay with surgical knives, cutting deeply into the mortal lesion. And then blood flows. Blood flows until the body remembers its original form.  By healing into an improved mode, the body confirms the truth of the vision of reconstructive cutting.

The Kazens saw opportunities for rehabilitation and reconstruction everywhere. They never dwelt on how heavy their work was because their minds were fixed on healing and rehabilitation. Whether they were at the hospital or among friends, the same redemptive motive guided them.

The Kazens had a reconstructive view of leprosy. Roland operated on lepers because he believed their bodies were as sacred as his own, and worthy of his highest intellectual and physical exertion. Birgitta was determined to see recovered patients restored to full dignity, because lepers are deserving children of God. The advantages the Kazens got from a European education and privilege were totally spent in the unselfish service of those less fortunate—because they believed such misfortune was an injustice to themselves. This is an echo of God’s miraculous grief.

How could we overcome our reflexive distaste for serving those whose lives have been blighted by adversity? It takes disciplined knowledge to rise above that visceral urge to run. It is not easy to view human need with redemptive eyes. The impulse to avoid being inconvenienced by misfortune or tragedy is as natural as breathing. What is more familiar to us is anxious hunger for material success and insulation. Intimately tied to that acquisitive anxiety is the demand for release through entertainment, closing the existential loop that begins and ends with self-interest.  

Excessive love and concern for oneself is a deadly form of moral leprosy. It paralyzes the nerves of empathy, and gradually extinguishes our ability to be in touch with others. As the disease progresses, it disfigures the human ties that bind us, and locks us in claustrophobic chambers of narcissism. We become deaf to voices that don’t sound like our own. Rather than drawing on the timeless meaning of what it means to be human, we hold on to accidental, narrowly defined, incongruous identities, which may one day become nothing more than historical curiosities. 

Today, I feel like we are at a crossroads. From Wall Street to Washington, the unapologetic leprosy of self-interest struts the corridors of influence. The chief pursuit of life now is to climb higher on the ladder of “success” at any cost, without regard for integrity or the welfare of others. When pricked by the voice of conscience, people come up with clever rationalizations to explain the dangerously unequal results of a fixed social arrangement they benefit from. Some say we must accept economic injustice as inevitable, since equal opportunity will never yield equal outcomes. Others are seized with a bland, even supine sympathy for the unfortunate, that has no transformative virtue beyond making sympathizers wallow in self-congratulation. 

We could avoid being inconvenienced by the moral decay surrounding us, hoping it will one day disappear of its own accord. But leprosy doesn’t disappear because you ignore it. It slowly, vengefully grinds its way deep into the nerves until you lose the ability to feel and intelligently react. As the disease progresses, ulcers from bruises that cannot be felt multiply, and make intervention difficult.  

A realistic diagnosis of our moral impulses requires stern honesty. The leprosy of unregulated self-interest, which tempts all of us, cannot be healed by sympathy alone. Reconstructive surgery requires knives to be intelligently wielded. If we don’t bleed, we will not heal. 

Truly meaningful lives invested in healing and rehabilitating our broken world are not created in a moment. The refining crucible of noble service requires sustained sacrifice. Seasonal commitment or the popular practice of sharing leftovers will not transform our communities.  A reconstructive vision demands total submission to service.

At times, in my imagination, I return to ALERT hospital in search of those children with leprosy. I wonder: What were their names? Where were they born? What made them happy or sad? What were their childhood dreams? Are they alive today? Sadly, I will never know. I will never know because when I met them I was ignorantly frightened, and seized with a visceral sense of self-defense. But education and dedicated practice could discipline my defensive impulse and enable me to see the world from the perspective of those less fortunate. That is what I want for myself.

If we recognize the nearness of death to our collective lives, we will see no distance between Sweden and Sierra Leone. If we have a redemptive heart, our home will be wherever we are needed. We can live full and meaningful lives, just like the Kazens, by wisely confronting our involuntary aversions, and inverting our priorities. If our fear of being inconvenienced doesn’t die, we will die in fear.  

Jesus once said, “​Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.​”  Like many other things Jesus said, this too is counterintuitive, but beautifully true.