By Tobin Jones
Leprosy is a disease that has a mythical status, more likely to be read in historical treatises than in the news. Despite its colourful portrayal throughout history, though, it is a disease that is still very much around, and misunderstood.
Nestled on the outskirts of Msambweni, in Kenya’s coast, lies a small village where leprosy victims from across Kenya have gathered to create a settlement known as Baraka.
For most, their reasons for being there are two-fold. Firstly, its location, just several kilometers from Msambweni District hospital, allows for quick and easy treatment of the disease.
Secondly, the village provides the lepers with a community where they can escape the stigma that so often surrounds this disfiguring disease.
Traditionally it is the stigma that surrounds leprosy, rather than the risk of infection, that has been the main reason for lepers being ostracised.
In ancient times, it was often believed leprosy was a curse, contracted as punishment for sinning. As a result lepers were often made to wear special clothes and bells, so that they announced their movement, and to prevent any contact with the uninfected, or made to live in separate communities entirely.
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Although leprosy is treatable and easy to contain, there still exists a last bastion of leper colonies throughout the world in countries as diverse as India, Sudan, and even the US. These are often a product of a time when the physical separation of lepers from the general population was forced, but have endured because of the stigma that lepers still face in society.
Baraka village has a somewhat different history in that lepers were never forced to live there. They began moving there in the early 1970s in order to receive treatment from the disease at a medical facility next door.
Liking the area, and perhaps finding solace in other victims, many decided to stay on. Now, several decades later, the leper colony remains, though notably smaller due to a decrease in infection rates throughout Kenya.
Begun as an informal settlement in Msambweni’s hospital compound, the lepers of Baraka boast their own homes, thanks to the help of a Kenya-born Dutchman who donated money in 2005 for the construction of concrete homes in the village. Today, the home houses 33 leprosy victims, as well as their families.
This is a tremendous benefit to a village where most could never hope to build homes, what with their physical disabilities and the social stigma.
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Despite the help that the lepers of Baraka receive from both Government and individuals, the village is not without challenges.
It is incredibly difficult for victims of leprosy to find work. As a result, each week, a large number of Baraka lepers are forced to travel the two hours up the road to Mombasa.
There, they join a throng of other beggars lining the city streets, begging residents and tourists for alms. A tiring and often demoralising task, it often takes several days and nights (all spent on the pavement) before they accumulate enough money to be able to raise the fare home, as well as food for the rest of the week.
While the lepers of Baraka still face many hardships, life is improving slowly, as it is for lepers all over the world.
In 2000, the World Health Organisation declared that leprosy no longer posed a public health problem. Kenya only detected 204 new cases in 2009, and is now in the post-elimination phase of the disease.
However, despite the leaps and bounds the world has made in eliminating the disease, it is estimated that two to three million people are still living with it.
As a result, it will probably be some years before we see the last of Baraka’s lepers.