The Suakoko Leper Colony: The Stigmatization of an Ancient Disease
At the entrance to the jungle where the ETU is, a huge sign for the Bong ETU towers over and dwarfs the old sign for the Suakoko Leper Colony. One could easily miss it.
The old Leper Colony of Suakoko is about fifteen minutes away from the Bong ETU, a dirt path first leading uphill then down into a small valley of a collection of mud-spattered stucco houses with tinned roofing of a settlement of about 500 inhabitants. I took that walk one hot afternoon and ran into three men, one of whom called himself Old Man and he decided to accompany me into the Leper Colony. He lives there.
Just right outside the colony is the school house which was closed because of the Ebola outbreak; apparently a school teacher comes to teach around 100 to 150 children from the colony. A water pump stands close by protected by a circular wall of palm fronds. The colony does not have electricity. It was built by President Tubman in 1955.
At the entrance to the colony is a shed of sticks and fronds where the owner sells small items. Old Man introduced me to an old lady with leprosy affecting mainly her toes. Neither she nor he knew how old she was. Further in is an open shed in the compound where cooking takes place. Old Man told me that the colony does not get any financial support from the government. The villagers are farmers and they help one another especially the lepers who are old now and cannot work. The young inhabitants who are not infected by leprosy can go out to the outside world and work. Earlier this year, some of them had been forced to go to the main road, the Monrovia to Gbarnga road, about two kilometers away, to beg. In August it took a while for the inhabitants to agree to have the Bong ETU to be built so close to them as they feared the further burden of the stigmatization of Ebola infection to be added to their already shunned state from society. Now a few of the inhabitants actually work at the Bong ETU and they were very happy to see that someone was interested enough to visit them.
The houses look like those in most African villages, suffering from neglect and disrepair. Inside of one house there was only a bed with clothing hanging form a line and scattering on the floor, the walls and indeed the whole village need a serious face lift in addition to a coat of painting. Many of the lepers I met were elderly women with stubbed hands and feet, missing fingers and toes, some still attempting to weave baskets from palm leaves for their living.
The administrator of the colony wants the world to hear about their plight of not getting help from the government in terms of financial aid and medical care. Many of the children and grandchildren are not infected with leprosy but by virtue of the fact that they are from the colony they are still shunned by society.
I saw my first leprosy patient when I was in a ward in St. Pancras Hospital in London in an Indian man who had a patch of skin lesion on his leg with decreased sensation. Our attending was careful to call it Hansen’s disease in order not to stigmatize him.
On my way back to the ETU, a few children from the colony were busy collecting kindling. This brought back memory of my time as a young teen chopping wood in the forest for my mother for her cooking for an entire year in the hot afternoons after school with my friend who had the ill fortune of being taken out of school by her parents because she was a girl. I was lucky to be still in school then. The fate of these children out of the colony and poverty will depend first and foremost on their having a good education.
Old Man told me that he missed his lunch so by way of thanking him I went into the office and brought him lunch which would have been discarded if not eaten.
Like Ebola, leprosy stigmatizes the patients who are afflicted with the disease and the people associated with them and they are feared and shunned by society. Ebola is a deadly infection while leprosy lingers and leaves an infected person disfigured if not treated. But unlike Ebola, leprosy is not as contagious and it takes time and repeated exposure to be infected and the incubation period instead of 2 to 21 days is about 5 years and symptoms may take up to 20 years to appear.
While my quarantine is almost over, that of the inhabitants of the Leper Colony in Suakoko from the rest of society effectively remains.