Of Love, Hope and Leprosy: Tales from a Lepers’ Colony

Of Love, Hope and Leprosy: Tales from a Lepers’ Colony

Saturday, March 11, 2017 5:49 pm

A part view of the colony

Most people think of leprosy as a disease that has been eradicated many years ago, with the last Sunday in January of every year declared as World Leprosy Day. Richard Elesho reports on his encounters with a group of people living with the disease.

Pa. Emmanuel Salifu is accustomed to living on the edge. For this septuagenarian single parent, disasters have been pouring in torrents. Very early in life, young Salifu had a health challenge which was later diagnosed as leprosy.

Thus, the native of Oturkpo, Benue State, in north central Nigeria was forced to put his marital plans on hold.  After many failed attempts to cure the disease through herbs, sacrifices and other traditional means, he found his way to a missionary hospital committed to the treatment and management of the disease.

He was admitted and has since remained a resident and patient in the hospital for decades.

Determined to fulfill his age long wish of getting a wife, Salifu fell in love with Angelina Okolo a fellow leprosy patient at the missionary hospital in the course of his treatment.  The relationship was nurtured and it eventually blossomed to marriage. The love birds remained in the colony taking treatments and pursuing a career in farming. Their union was blessed with two children.

Then disaster struck again. Angela developed other health complications and suffered mental illness. In no time, she lost one of her kids. The hospital management then quickly arranged to take the surviving son, Monday to an orphanage home in Otutulu, Dekina Local Government, where he grew up.

After a difficult battle with dementia, Angela also died. “Life is difficult. But, I thank the mission for all they have been doing for me,” Pa. Salifu said in gratitude during a chat with this magazine recently.

Monday, who was taken away from Angela as a toddler is now 13-year old and back to the custody of his father in the colony. He attends a Secondary School owned by the hospital free of tuition and is in JSS II. He shared his passion for Volley Ball and ambition of becoming an accountant with this magazine.

Emmanuel Salifu: got married and fathered two children in the colony

He however has one major worry. “I’m very lonely here. I have no one to play with after school.” Yet, this is not strange given the fact that stigmatisation remains a major issue in the management of leprosy. Besides, Monday does not have an age mate in the colony.

Welcome to the Lepers’ Colony of the Holley Memorial Hospital, Ochadamu, Kogi State, where dreams die hard.

The Leprosy Village is located in the outskirts of Ohadamu, a major transit community on the federal highway linking Lokoja, the Kogi State capital in North-Central to Enugu State in South-East Nigeria.

The hospital has treated more than 700 inmates at different times since its establishment by missionaries in 1948.

At present, it has close to 40 lepers in its custody and offers other medical services to the general public. 16 of the lepers are on admission in the wards while the others are out patients living in its expansive male or female lepers’ settlements.

The lepers are from different socio-cultural backgrounds. They are also vastly different from each other if parameters like age, gender, language and even religion were to be used to classify them.  But leprosy is a leveler. They are bound by a common misery and united in their battles against a disease.

They all had dreams. For some, the dreams may have fainted. But for others, there are still flickers of hope that the dreams may still be realised in spite of their present circumstances.

Ugbeda Ojoh is in the latter category. The 19 year old is spending her seventh month in the colony when this magazine met with her there. Life was normal for her in Abuja, where she lived with her parents, until she noticed her legs getting swollen and development of noodles around her ears and face.

Ugbeda Ojoh: her joy of being healed of leprosy dampened by trouble waiting back home

She mistook the development to be an ordinary skin infection and started using skin lotions and some herbs for the cure, but to no avail.

It was while she was accompanied by a friend to a pharmaceutical shop to buy some drugs that someone suggested that her problem might be deeper than she thought.

Suggestions about going to Ochadamu surfaced as her condition  continue to defy  the treatments she has been applying.  But, her father, a Muslim and worker at the Nnamidi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, would not support her daughter going to a Christian Hospital for treatment. There was a stalemate.

Ojoh’s condition continued to deteriorate. With time, her mother and other relations mustered the courage and resources to embark on the journey to Ochadamu.

After intensive care at the hospital, she has recovered significantly and has started thinking again about her ambition of becoming a political scientist.

Luckily, she has completed her secondary school education and is armed with a good result. But her greatest worry is the family feud her condition had generated. Hear her: “I thank God and this hospital for the quick and steady recovery. But I am sad and scared about the quarrel in our family.”

Her fears may be justified. A source at the hospital informed this magazine that when the hospital management contacted her father on phone to update him on the healing process of his daughter, he snubbed the caller. “When we called him he was angry and retorted if  we were just knowing the girl had a father? He has not visited or called since we admitted the girl here.” As Ojoh is nearing good health, her daily prayer is for God to settle the quarrel and bring lasting peace into her family.

Ugbede’s friend and immediate neighbor in the ward, Happiness Ibrahim is luckier. At least, she does not have family issues to contend with. The 18-yr old native of Etsako in Edo State arrived at the colony about two years ago. She recalled how the sickness started: “It started with changes on my skin. There were no serious pains, but patches all over my body. Then, my body was always hot. Very hot.”

She says she is no longer feeling the ‘hotness’ of the body and the coloration is dead. Her life is gradually returning to normal. She was in SS1 when her condition forced her to drop out of school. She has recently resumed her studies in the Holley Memorial Secondary School owned by the hospital. She is in SS1 and plans to become a health worker. One day, she hopes to attend to the health needs of others.

In the colony, life is monotonous and loosely regimented. Every in-mate is encouraged to live in faith, love, hope and holiness. The Colony’s support staff includes cooks, a community extension worker, nurses and doctors. The regular staffs are paid by the hospital management. But, there are also some expatriates who are on voluntary service at the facility.

A typical day starts with prayer and ends in prayer. Indeed, there are days set aside for prayers every week. Mondays and Tuesdays are categorized as ulcer care days while every Thursday is left for counseling and health education.

Aside the special programs, each resident is free to engage in farming, poultry and such other activities with which they can contribute to their well being. Luckily, the hospital is located on a 2 Sq miles plot of land generously planted with cashew trees. The trees are allocated to the in-mates.

Proceeds from the agricultural engagements are at the disposal of each resident.

Although, in-mates hardly go to the neighbouring communities, people freely enter the colonies to make purchases. Items for sale include yams, cassava, chickens, goats, cashew nuts and such other agricultural products as the season may dictate.

The colony exudes notable Nollywood-like romance stories. Mr and Mrs Ali Wada met there many decades ago. The 74-year-old Pa Wada from Achigili in Dekina had always desired a stable family life. But as his health condition sentenced him to a life of recluse, he pocketed his ambition. However, as fate would have it, right in his quarantine, he met  Nwadi Ogbo, his heartthrob and native of Aya in Ibaji area of Kogi State.

The Wadas: became lovers at the lepers’ colony

After many years of dating, the two went to the altar to say. “I do” in 2005. Their marriage was conducted in the hospital Chapel in 2006. Although, they have no children yet, 12 years down Marriage Street, they are still glowing in love, in spite of their illnesses.

Not every inmate in the colony has been lucky to found love though.  Pa. Atabo Ahiaba, a native of Abocho is the head of the leprosarium. When he arrived in the colony more than 40 years ago, he had marriage on his mind. “I was about to marry when I noticed the patches and the sickness began.”

He recalled how he ran away from home in order to access treatment. Even though there was improvement in his health, the lady eventually shunned the marriage plans. He says he still remembers the wife to be. Every effort to have a spouse since then has failed. But his marital status does not stop him from settling disputes and performing other duties of his office as the leader of the colony.

Pa Atabo is supported in his duties by another veteran, Pa. Egbunu Ateba, whose first visit to the colony was in 1968. His biography is not a normal run of the mill. Egbunu’s father had nine children, two of which were infected with leprosy. In fact, his brother Ogani, lived and died in the colony.

When they first noticed the sickness, the parents did all they could to get cure, but to no avail. They visited many places where they were given herbs and other concoctions to use in having bath, drink or eat without success. He says some of his relations come to check on him once in a very long while in the many decades he has spent in the colony.

Almost all the in-mates have stories to tell about their initial attempts at herbal treatment. John Acholo arrived at Ochadamu from his Ibaji homeland more than 40 years ago. Before settling in the hospital, he had tried many traditional healing methods.

He recalls one in particular in which a spider was burnt and delicately mashed with some leaves and water. He was required to drink part of the water and regularly bath with it when harmattan is most severe and in utter darkness. The treatment seemed to work. But only temporarily: “I felt better for a while. But the problem is that it did not last. After some times, the sickness came back. Then it was as if spider or crab was moving inside my body and biting me.”

He got to know about Ochadamu through a female relation who informed him that the hospital was on an outreach programme in their area. He promptly visited the hospital and has remained in residence. He had since submitted to the fate imposed by his infirmity. But, the very lively old man still remembers home. Any hope of visiting some day? “My father died long ago. My mother is also dead. I don’t think my relations are still living. All of you can inherit my properties,” he replied.

Audu Oko and wife,  Ele-Ojo are the latest patients in the colony. The two inhabitants of Owo in Ondo state were just a week old in the hospital when this magazine visited.

Audu is the one who caught the disease. The wife and the husband have used the last five years of their 13-year-old marriage looking for solution. Sadly. instead of solution, the problem got compounded as the wife started showing symptoms of the disease.

Audu recalls how he had bought chickens and goats to make sacrifices which he was assured, would accelerate his healing in vain. The father of four now brims with hope as he says, “I have started seeing signs of recovery.  I am thankful that our children are not infected.”

Pa Ateba: unlucky with love

Onoja Victoria, the resident community health worker in the colony says what keeps her going is the strong conviction that anyone could fall victim of the disease. “It could have been you. It could also have been me. If it’s me, definitely someone will take care of me. So why should I not take care of others?”

But she says in spite of her enthusiasm, she usually becomes sober whenever any of her patients die. At such moments, the hospital community is thrown into deep mourning. Last year alone, the hospital lost three lepers. The deceased were Ejima Adi, from Ayah Community in Ibaji LGA, Omale Oyibo, from Idah LGA and Augustin Faruna who hailed from Dekina LGA. They were all buried by the management of the hospital as no relations came forward to claim them.

“Leprosy is a chronic disease. Some of the patients can suffer relapse, so we encourage them to live in. When they have problems they can easily be reached and come regularly for wound dressing and other treatments.

“Some of them have lost their limbs and can only crawl on the ground. Since the condition is highly contagious, victims are ostracized.

“To make treatment easy, we decided to build settlements for them. We have both Male and Female settlements. Whenever they have issues, we bring them to the wards for treatment and return them to the settlement.

“We also do not joke with their feeding and clothing. But when the unexpected still happen, we take it in good faith, because God is the only one who can give and take life,” Elder Daniel Ameh, the Secretary to the hospital said.

Leprosy or Hansen’s disease may not be common in the developed world. Even in developing economies where cases of the disease break out, most people are not familiar with it as people suffering from the condition are usually ostracized to prevent them from infecting others.

It is caused by bacteria and obvious signs of infection include sores on the skin with widespread scarring. Lepers are believed to experience reduced sweating. The disease damages nerves, resulting in numbness and paralysis.

The bones, cartilage and eyeballs are easily ravaged by it leading to disfigurement and blindness, if not treated on time.

Although the disease is less contagious than once thought, it spreads through droplets of nasal mucus. The risk of contracting it is higher in its early days of attack. The cure of the disease may take a life time.

While calling for support from well meaning individuals, groups, religious organizations, corporate bodies and the government, the secretary acknowledged generous support totaling N78m received from two former Governors of Kogi State, Alh. Ibrahim Idris  and Capt. Idris Wada which, according to him, greatly assisted the hospital in the establishment of its new School of Nursing.

The Holley Memorial Hospital, originally known as Ochadamu Medical Centre is a mission hospital owned by the Qua Iboe church.

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