Inside Nigeria’s century-old lepers’ colony

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Lack of potable water, toilet facility and, more crucially, necessary medications continue to plague residents of the 113-year-old Lepers’ Colony at Elega, Abeokuta, Ogun State. LARA ADEJORO reports

Mrs. Aina Ojo is one of the oldest lepers in the colony. She walks with the aid of a prosthetic leg and crutches she got many years ago after her leg was amputated as a result of the complications from the disease.

Ojo, in her 80s, wakes up daily and struggles to feed herself.Her grandchildren sometimes visit her, she said.

Being one of the surviving residents at the colony, she was admitted in 1959, a year before Nigeria’s independence.

Recounting her journey to the colony, Ojo said she noticed red patches on her skin, which gradually began to cause progressive and permanent damage to her skin, nerves, limbs, and eyes.

She was already married with three children, and had a bustling business in Ado-Ekiti, Ekiti State, before everything came to a halt.

“No one has this disease in my lineage. It was strange. I didn’t know anything about it until one person took us to Ogbomoso and when we got there, we were told that it can be treated around Iyin-Ekiti.

“So, I was going for medications (Dapsone) frequently. But, my situation began to deteriorate and my leg began to pain me,” she said.

Suicidal thoughts

Before she knew it, she started experiencing numbness, reduced sensation and weakness in her hands and feet.

Even though her family members were supportive, she contemplated committing suicide.

“It was at that point that one missionary came to tell me that some people would come to assist me. Then, I was taken to one hospital in the old Bendel State, where my condition was diagnosed as leprosy and my leg was amputated.

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“Later, I was brought to this place,” she said, while fighting back tears.

Nigeria records 2,424 new leprosy cases in 2019

Leprosy is an infectious disease caused by a bacillus, Mycobacterium leprae. Experts say M. leprae multiplies slowly and that the incubation period of the disease, on the average, is fiveyears and symptoms may occur within one year. However, it can also take as long as 20 years or even more for symptoms to manifest, according to the World Health Organisation.

Despite the Global Leprosy Strategy by WHO on ‘Zero leprosy, zero discrimination, and zero disability by 2020,’ Nigeria still recorded 2,424 new leprosy cases in 2019, of which about six percent are children and about 13-15 percent experienced WHO ranking of ‘grade two deformity.’

“We are supposed to be talking about zero leprosy, zero disability, and zero discrimination, but because cases are reported late, we have children coming down with leprosy and high grade two disability,” the Deputy Director, Leprosy and Buruli Ulcer Focal Person at the Federal Ministry of Health, Mr. Peter Adebayo, told PUNCH HealthWise.

Adebayo said leprosy treatment can be accessed at the 774 Local Government Areas through the TB, Leprosy, and Buruli Ulcer Supervisor and that each of the states in the country, including the Federal Capital Territory, has its supervisor.

“There are designated multi-drug therapycentres where leprosy patients are treated.

“We normally rehabilitate them. We have various non-governmental organisations that normally assist us in doing rehabilitation for the treated patients,” he said.

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A total lack of basic amenities

Aside from the buildings erected in 1908 by missionaries and the people moving around, nothing at the Elega leprosy colony indicates that the lepers living there are entitled to decent condition of living.

The general living conditions are appalling. The hygienic conditions are bad, with filthy premises.

In general, the outlook is quite grim. Though a few NGOs support the residents, the Federal Government seems blind to their situation.

Only two pit latrines

The two unkempt pit latrines and four bathrooms at the colony are likely breeding grounds for infections, with overwhelming stench of human waste, as flies buzz around in irritating manner.

According to the Chairman of Integrated Dignity Economic Advancement, Ogun State chapter, Mr. Hameed Jimoh, the residents can wake up early to have their bath before dawn if they don’t want to use the bathroom.

“For toilet, they use a bowl or spread paper on the ground and dispose of the waste in the pit,” he said.

No running water

The colony has no potable water source,though it currently houses 28 lepers officially, in addition to unofficial residents such as their dependents.

Our correspondent learnt that the lepers who do not have dependents living with them depend on the benevolence of others or give passersby money to help them fetch water from a stream in the community.

“The water from the stream is for bathing or washing and we normally buy drinking water from outside.

“The Lions’ Club erected a borehole for us but it’s no longer working. It’s not been working since November because we learnt that the place is not good for the borehole,” Hameed said.

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Meagre stipend

Apart from the meagre N10,000 they get monthly from the Ogun State Government, they have nothing coming from the Federal Government to augment their subsistence.

Octogenarian Mrs. Ojo said since the money is not enough to feed her for a month, she had taken to selling groundnut, condiments, and noodles in her one-room apartment.

“Sometimes, I go hungry, hoping that help will come someday.It means one is expected to spend like N350 daily. What can that get? It’s even worse for some of us here with children.

“We don’t feel the presence of the Federal Government. It is the state government that gives us monthly stipend.

“Before, we each cultivated a farm, but due to the encroachment on the land, we can’t do it anymore,” Hameed added.

Unending struggle

Lack of adequate support, disability, and stigmatisation make life difficult for residents of the colony.Many of them depend on well-meaning Nigerians, who visit once in a while, to support them.

Before Pa John Ajoawo discovered that he had the disease, he had used traditional medicine, visited houses of prayer, and spent his lifesaving in search of a cure, yet nothing changed.

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