On Being Chased by a Leper through the Bible

IMG_2918We are lost and trying to get away from a leper. This is one of those problems I never had until I arrived in Ethiopia. This is our second one today. Leper, that is. The first one had no nose. There was nothing between his mouth and eyes but a red, raw gap split by thin lines of cartilage. It made us wince. When he reached out his hand for money, we moved quickly away. Though neither of us said it, I know we both irrationally felt that by handing him money we would somehow contract leprosy by association.

We couldn’t even feel bad at that moment, as I’ve found that any sympathy I have for a leper in my direct vicinity is strictly in hindsight.

Our second leper of the day is clearly following us. He’s shuffling along (this one has no fingers or toes) and casing us while keeping a constant distance of about twelve or thirteen feet. He’s keeping his cool. Occasionally, we watch him to let him know we’re on to him, but he doesn’t get rattled. He rather nonchalantly dips into a hut or scans the items on a blanket full of dirty wares. I guess once you have leprosy any potential social embarrassment or awkwardness is really small potatoes.

Without our leper, I wouldn’t mind being lost here. We’re in Gondar, Ethiopia, a beautiful city in the west. It was established and named capital of Ethiopia by King Fasilides in the 1600s. He built Fasil Ghebbi, which is an enclosed fortress city within Gondar and in which the Ethiopian emperors lived for many generations, excelling in the royal pastimes of poisoning each other, getting syphilis, and dethroning rivals violently.

Good times.

We have just left Fasil Ghebbi, and the city streets around the enclosure are astounding. The roads are dirt, lined with crude mud houses or thatched huts. The women are sitting outside their houses, cooking injera in wide pots or weaving baskets. The men are fixing their homes with planks of wood or carrying heavy objects through the streets – apparently a pastime in Ethiopia.

IMG_2863It’s not the first time that Ethiopia has made us feel as though we’ve just stepped into the bible. Several of the houses are mud or thatched huts or basic structures of raw materials. Many of the people are dressed in woven tarps or crude canvas wraps. We have driven though dusty, rocky, mountainous landscapes that are probably largely unchanged in the last three or four thousand years. And we are in the only car in sight, the biblicality of the scene enhanced by slow-moving goat or shepherds caravanning flocks. And Pontius Pilot.

OK, no Pilot.

Obviously, the cars, pants, and T-shirts on these high Gondar streets are a tip-off that we haven’t stumbled into 4 BC Galilee, but there’s certainly a biblical, age-old feel to it.

Plus, there’s a leper.

The leper is starting to freak us out. What if he really makes a charge at us? There’s no place to go, no safe haven. We are in the bible, for crying out loud. There are no buildings around here, no solid structures like a bank or an insurance company. We can’t just push through a revolving door into an air-conditioned lobby and say to a guard, “Hi, we’re being chased by a leper, can we hang out here for a minute? And I’d love a coffee.”

Moreover, while I am reasonably confident in my ability to defend myself – especially against pregnant women and mouthy toddlers – I don’t want to fistfight a leper. I am a hypochondriac; a tussle with a leper might send me over the edge. Also, lepers have the unique ability to remove parts of their body and throw them at you. I don’t want to deal with that. Wow, I never knew that lepers could bring so many issues into your life.

Now I know just how Jesus felt.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against lepers at all; in fact, I wish all of the world’s lepers all the best. Our leper looks like a nice guy, sort of like an accountant I once knew named Kevin. If this guy wasn’t being a homeless leper in Gondar, he’d probably have a job and a wife. He’d gripe about bills and taxes. He’d go to his local bar on Thursday nights for an after work beer and shot and bitch to the guy next to him about his bratty kids.

But he’s not. Instead of that he’s busy scaring tourists and watching parts of his body slip away into a muddy street.

Before you tsk-tsk and wag your finger at me for my insensitivity, let me ask you this – have you ever been chased by a leper through the bible?


Lepers encompass a theoretical role in most of our lives. We watch The Greatest Story Ever Told and say, Oh, would you look at those poor lepers. And then you eat popcorn and lick salt and butter off of our non-detachable fingers. So back off.

The whole world changes when you add pushy lepers to it. It gets, well, more biblical.

We find a restaurant and duck into it to avoid our leper, who dances by the doorway on his stubs staring into the sky and whistling through the gap in his neck. He doesn’t even shoot us a look, he didn’t need us at all.

The restaurant is outdoors, but covered with a thatched roof of long sticks and branches. We sit at a rickety wooden table and the waitress comes to us and smiles.

“We have kitfo,” she says, then scans her interior dictionary, “um…raw meat.”


She turns to a man standing in a window, a side of beef is hanging against a wall behind him. When she nods at him, he cuts off a hunk of the beef and starts chopping it into bits. Disturbingly, this makes me think of our leper, Kevin, and I wonder if he’s off now following someone else, or maybe just looking for some food.

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