Gospel singer/songwriter Philippa Hanna has returned from the mission field in Mozambique reignited in her faith with a new-found sense of purpose. Charlotte Walker reports…
2015 has been quite a year for Philippa Hanna to date. Not only has she had the opportunity to share her gospel-inspired music with new audiences in a seven-week UK tour supporting Britain’s Got Talent winners Collabro, but the young singer/songwriter has been recording in Nashville, Tennessee, home of country music.
In her few free days, between sharing her distinctive sound with new fans both sides of the Atlantic, she found time to fly to Mozambique to meet some of the world’s poorest and most marginalised people. She travelled with The Leprosy Mission to front the international development charity’s new campaign Feet First.
“It was an amazing and humbling experience especially coming from a seven-week tour having my hair and make-up done every night,” she said.“It really makes you realign your perspective in a really good way.
“I met people who probably wouldn’t have had a hope in life without The Leprosy Mission; they had been so stigmatised and isolated. It is really hard to put into words what it’s like to meet people who are so precious and yet so challenged.”
Philippa came to the Christian faith a decade ago after struggling to make a name for herself in the cut-throat music business. Despite her distinct talent, she was wracked with self-doubt and feared she didn’t have the right ‘look’ for the music industry.
But a spiritual epiphany led her to help those struggling with self-esteem and body image issues through her music with its over-arching message that we are ‘fearfully and wonderfully’ made by God. This message is particularly potent in her autobiographical song Raggedy Doll, the lyrics of which tell of being beautifully made despite often wishing we’d been ‘stitched’ another way.
It was a calling to love people who are so physically and emotionally challenged that lead Philippa and husband Joel Cana, drummer in the now disbanded indie/rock band The Gentlemen, to the poor Cabo Delgado province of Mozambique.
There is a high prevalence of leprosy in Cabo Delgado, which, if left untreated, causes permanent nerve damage and can lead to people to unknowingly injure themselves. Without the utmost care being taken, injuries become infected which leads to permanent disability and even the amputation of limbs. People in Cabo Delgado largely survive from subsistence farming; there is no safety net if they can no longer work the land as a result of their disabilities. They are either left at the mercy of their family to care and support them or the sympathy of those tossing change into their begging bowl. This ancient disease causes a sharp descent in people’s lives and Philippa was left broken-hearted by the people she met at the bottom.
One of them was Antonio, whose wife Gabrielle was also leprosy-affected but who had been treated for the disease sooner meaning her disabilities are not as severe. She struggles alone to work the land to support the family.
Philippa recalled: “Antonio wished he could work but his feet were so disabled that he couldn’t farm the land and provide for his family. He felt totally useless.
“It’s upsetting to see people living with these terrible sores on their feet. It was the lack of urgency that was the most upsetting. I met a gentleman with open sores on his feet and it was the fact that he didn’t seem in a panic to do anything about it that made me so sad.”
The Leprosy Mission’s Feet First campaign raises money to set up foot care groups to help people in Cabo Delgado protect their numb feet and provides them with protective sandals so that they can be spared the wounds and ulcers that lead to permanent disability.
Currently, supporters across England and Wales are standing in solidarity with those in Mozambique by doing The Barefoot Challenge. Whether it is travelling on the bus, going shopping or walking the dog – they are doing it all bare foot for the day. They then donate to the campaign and post their photos and footage on social media, challenging friends and family to take up the mantle.
Wanting to lift the bar even higher, Philippa decided to do an authentic Barefoot Challenge in Mozambique: “People in Mozambique tend to walk around bare foot because of the heat and their lifestyles,” she explained.
“If they’re healthy and are not leprosy-affected then that’s fine because their body tells them when they’ve stepped on a sharp stone or thorn. But as soon as the numbness kicks in, as a result of leprosy, then there are all sorts of hazards.
“My Barefoot Challenge in Mozambique was quite comical as I wasn’t prepared for the heat of the sand and all the little kids were laughing at me because of it.
“The sand was ridiculously hot but people were walking around oblivious as their feet are hardened to it. I thought The Barefoot Challenge would be a breeze but I could barely stand and was hopping around on it!”
Returning to the UK briefly before jetting off to Tennessee, Philippa reflected back on her experience: “I have never felt such a sense of purpose.
“I came back thinking that the most useful thing we can do is love someone and there’s never an age or a situation that can change that.
“I got a chance to wash a lady’s feet. I wanted to do it so I could really get into her shoes and feel what it’s like in her community. It was such an honour and a privilege to give that lady a bit of love and care.
“It is an amazing remedy for someone who feels like they’ve lost the edge on their faith. I would strongly advise anyone who feels this way to go and do something like this. It puts you in a situation that God carries you through; it sharpens your senses.”
The Leprosy Mission has won UK Aid Match funding for its pioneering Feet First campaign, meaning every pound raised between 1 June and 31 August 2015 will be matched by the UK government.
Feet First will work with 4,000 ultra-poor people in Mozambique, including those with disabilities and affected by leprosy.
Visit www.feetfirst.org.uk to see Philippa’s film and find out how you can transform lives in Mozambique.
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