MUTOKO — Far away from the madding crowd of Harare — 150km to be exact — a group of people remain detached from the rest of the world, seemingly frozen in time at Mutemwa Leprosy Centre, thrown together by circumstances beyond their control to forge their own little community.
BY PHYLLIS MBANJE
Nestled between two iconic mountains, Mutemwa and Chigona, the centre is home to 38 patients, 22 of them post-lepers, while the remainder is made up of destitutes and the disabled.
Post-lepers are individuals that had been afflicted by leprosy but it is no longer active in their system.
As one approaches the centre, there is such peace and calm in this little community that pulsates with life. But within its walls live men and women, whose stories are heartbreaking just as they are encouraging and inspiring.
It’s a warm Wednesday afternoon and 76-year-old Gilbert Njanji is lounging in the door-way of his single quarters. Hunched in a steel garden chair, he reminisces about his old life before leprosy invaded his body, maiming him in the process.
Both his hands have missing fingers and subconsciously he hides the stumps in the fold of his oversized black T-shirt.
“I miss my old life, my work and my children,” he says, shaking his head and shifts slightly.
His haggard frame bears testimony to the battle he has fought with the crippling disease. Njanji is one of the post-leper patients at the centre. The tales of the 22 post-lepers form a tapestry of history woven with grief, pain, loss but also the dawning realisation that the centre is their only home.
Told and retold over years, their stories are as diverse as they are similar in nature. They all face the same branding, “outcasts”. Different circumstances but viewed from a similar lens of the community’s stigmatising camera.
Once known as the dumping place for lepers from all over Southern Africa, the centre has over the years tried to create a home for people like Njanji.
“This place survives on donations and we try to make their lives as comfortable as funds permit,” says Joseph Karichi who is part of the administration at the centre.
Leprosy is an age-old debilitating, stigmatising disease, described in the literature of ancient civilisations.
Decades later, some of the post lepers have been healed of the disease but still nurse wounds which need to be dressed daily.
“I was gainfully employed at David Whitehead and my life was complete, well until 1972 when the first symptoms appeared,” said Njanji. It started as a bad rash that quickly spread over his hands, feet and face.
“They looked like scales and I went to the hospital and was treated. For years I had actually forgotten about it until 1992 when it started again.”
This time the disease was more vicious and more pronounced. Njanji sought help from traditional healers, who told him that it was a witchcraft act.
“They lied to me for years and I wasted a lot of time, when I could have gone for medical help earlier,” he recalls.
Delayed medication at the time resulted in many lepers losing limbs and their eye sight. Njanji watched his fingers dropping off one by one until he could not work anymore. His wife stood by him, but sadly passed away leaving behind seven children. However, Njanji has not seen his children since 2006.
“Since I came here (Mutemwa Centre), none of my children has bothered to see me. I do not even know if they are alive or if I have grandchildren,” he says, his voice thickening with emotion.
“If I had money, I would have gone to Chegutu to look for them and check on my property that I left. I so wish to see my children but…” he shrugs his shoulders and stares into space.
Although he has been healed of leprosy, he now has to contend with high blood pressure.
“Maybe, I think too much about my children and wonder why they do not desire to see me,” there is evident desperation in his voice and he turns away, unwilling to talk anymore.
However, the centre encourages relatives to occasionally visit or even take the patient home for a short period.
“Some lucky ones have relatives who come to visit and even take them for a limited time,” said Karichi.
Jessie Brown is one of the oldest post-leper patients. She is from Mozambique and believes she was cursed by a headman back home.
“I was a very young girl when I got the disease after being cursed by this headman who couldn’t handle that I had turned down his marriage proposal. He publicly declared that I would die a leper with scales all over my body,” says the 99-year-old.
The disease tore at her face, hands and feet, disfiguring her in the process.
“If this hadn’t happened, I would have married my childhood sweetheart,” she chuckles.
Bubbly and seemingly at peace with her circumstances, Brown is grateful to the late former warden of Mutemwa, John Bradeburn, who offered her accommodation and was instrumental in rehabilitating her.
Bradeburn was murdered in 1979, but his love for the lepers touched many people in the community.
Zeria and Benson Charera
However, for the couple, Zeria and Benson Charera, their story has a good ending. Rejected by their former spouses they found each other and accepted their fate.
“We met here at the centre and because we both suffered from the same disease we understood each other,” said Zeria shyly gazing at her husband.
The couple lives within the compound and lead their lives as normally as they can, despite their disabilities as a result of leprosy.
Zeria can cook, wash, and do a million other tasks, even though much of her limbs have been eaten away. But the two are not bitter at the people who shunned them before.
“We have forgiven them, because they did not understand the disease. We are grateful that we are alive and have each other,” said Zeria.
Many of the post lepers are involved in projects that are carried out at the centre like piggery, poultry, dress making among several.
“We have some of the best seamtresses here and they have not let their shortcomings hold them back,” says Karichi.
Elimination of leprosy as public health problem (defined as a registered prevalence of less than one case per 10 000 population) was achieved globally in 2000. More than 16 million leprosy patients have been treated with multi-drug therapy (MDT) over the past 20 years.
MDT consists of two or three medicines: dapsone and rifampicin for all patients, with Clofazimine added for multi-bacillary disease. This latter combination kills the pathogen and cures the patient.
Since 1995, WHO has provided MDT free of cost to all leprosy patients in the world. Free MDT was initially funded by The Nippon Foundation, and since 2000, it is donated through an agreement with Novartis. This donation runs until 2020.