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The Foot-Washers of Ethiopia
Image: Photos Courtesy of Larry Thomas

Physician Larry Thomas remembers a luncheon two years ago in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where many folks interested in a dreadful, newly discovered disease called podoconiosis—"podo" for short—met for the first time.

"As we were about to eat, I asked, on an impulse, if anyone would mind if we thanked God for the food. The response was startling," says Thomas, also the founder of Tropical Health Alliance Foundation. "Not only did everyone want to pray, they began to share about their faith. We soon realized that we were all fully vested Christians."

Not everybody interested in podo is a Christian. But a thread of Christian faith and mission runs through everything that's being done to fight the disease. A remarkable diversity of believers are involved in the fight—the man who first discovered the disease, the octogenarian doctor who developed treatment for it, and the leaders of today's scientific research. Add the activism of Catholic sisters and a highly successful young entrepreneur with a line of hip shoes, and the unfamiliar disease is at last gaining the world's attention.

Podo is grotesque. In severe cases, the victim's feet appear to be turning into cauliflower—horrible, rotting cauliflower—or something that grows under a rock in 20 feet of water. These are nightmare feet, seeming to bubble and melt, producing unbearable odors.

An estimated one million Ethiopians suffer from podo, as do perhaps three million more, mostly Africans. In affected areas—typically mountains with red volcanic soil—1 out of every 20 people have it. A village of 2,000 will have 100 victims, permanently disabled. In certain areas of Ethiopia, the ...

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The Foot-Washers of Ethiopia
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In the Magazine

May 2011

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