On Life, love and Politics

"Random musings about Life, love and Politics. Just my open diary on the events going on in the world as I see it."

The last leper colonies of Africa April 23, 2010

Filed under: Health/Sante — kikenileda @ 9:12 AM

On the edge of Southern Sudan town of Juba lives a group of lepers inside Rokwe colony. It is the only place that about 3,000 Sudanese call home; 500 of them still suffering from the pain of leprosy.

A few families take care of their relatives living here, but Sudan Government is yet to support the missionary driven institution.

Occasionally, you see elderly people guided by younger boys around the vast compound, just to while away their time. Others will be undergoing treatment at the medical centre that is the nerve of this space.

The grass-thatched shelters at Rokwe might look shaky for outsiders, but to those who have lived here for years, this is the only place that offers them reason to be alive.This was the Catholic bishop, who, using church resources and personal networks, decided to put up a shelter for lepers.  

Drugs to support the patients are aplenty and neighbours living in the centre support each other, something that the rest of the community does not offer most of the time. Some have made families here.

Curable disease

Even though curable, discrimination against lepers in Southern Sudan lingers. For these patients, it is the pain of stigma that makes their lives harder, not the disease.

In the centre, there is no reliable water stream; education services are not easy to access as it remains difficult to persuade teachers to work here, in any case, the lepers are still secluded from the rest of the society. In this case, children are the main losers.

Elsewhere in Cairo, that once sent her lepers into the desert away from the public eye and contact, those suffering from the disease are better cushioned today.

In fact, one of the colonies that existed in seclusion is now integrating into the rest of the community, especially through marriages and resettlement of the lepers.

An hour drive away from Cairo city stands the Abu Zaabal Colony that was set up in the 30s somewhere in a desert. Today, this institution has become an oasis of sort, not just for the lepers, but the rest of Cairo too.

The colony is very distant from Juba’s Rokwe reality: There is a mosque, a large bakery, a school, even a prison. There is also a medical facility to ensure the disease does not spread and to ensure the health of the children in the community.

Bad memories

Despite the echoes of stigma attached to the centre, success of the people here has seen other Egyptians move into the colony in search of employment. This has raised the number of inhabitants to 5,000 this year.

The number of those suffering from the disease has now dropped dramatically, only a few are still on treatment in the hospital.

When officials attempted to kill the colony, residents were outraged, despite the bad memories associated with it.

"Our life is here. There is nothing for us outside," Ms Layla Darwish, the grandmother of three children who live with their parents in Abu Zaabal, said.

In Tanzania, Kalandoto settlement hosts about 11,135 settlers, half of whom are children born at the centre. Then there are forest colonies in Nigeria that offer solace to lepers away from stigma.Rokwe and Abu Zaabal aside, there are a few other surviving leper colonies around Africa.

Despite the boundary that sets them apart from the rest of the society, these colonies are happier homes for the patients.

Forest colonies

In the forest colonies in Nigeria that were meant to ostracise them from the rest of the community, the inhabitants meet freely, even marry from within. But lack of schools and other social amenities set the inhabitants back.

In Africa, lepers are almost living in prison, their communities have little time for them and governments have done little to alleviate their pain; they are a forgotten group.

South Africa's Robben Island was once a leper colony.

In 1845, all the lepers who had lived in South Africa’s Hemel-en-Aarde leper colony were relocated to the Robben Island.

While South African lepers initially had a choice between joining seclusion and living with their communities, the enactment of the Leprosy and the Repression Act of May 1892 made it mandatory for all lepers to be isolated.

When lepers were moved onto Robben Island, they tasted the solitary life that prisoners experience, plus discrimination. The colony was later closed in 1931.

Infectious disease

Leprosy is an infectious disease that affects nerves, eyes and limbs that has become easy to cure, especially after WHO declared war against the affliction in 1996.

When it broke out, leprosy was a disease
that scattered villages, a sort of anathema in most African societies. Several years after researchers came up with a cure, thousands of Africans still suffer the pain of rejection and isolation.

Most of the lepers enclosed in colonies never got a chance to step out, seek their love. While some opted to live solitary lives without partners to tend their softer side, others opted to marry colony colleagues and life continued, without any medical danger as some African communities once believed.

Even when leprosy became another curable disease, some of those who had found a home in the colonies would rather continue their lives there instead of stepping back to communities that once secluded them.

Others have walked back and are striving on with their lives. These are the different fortunes of lepers in a continent that once discriminated against lepers, especially after seclusion to avoid spread of the disease. 


One Response to “The last leper colonies of Africa”

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