Lepers. Seriously.

10 Nov

Back in junior high I joked with my friends about leprosy. We thought it would make for a great Saturday Night Live skit, with Dana Carvey’s and Chris Farley’s body parts falling off at inopportune social moments. “Waiter, I think there’s a finger in my soup,” and that kind of thing. It was funny to us because: a) we were in junior high, b) it is sort of funny to think about, and c) we thought there weren’t any lepers anymore – that it was just one of those things that only exists in the Bible (like donkeys that talk and people who live in fish bellies).

As with many things I believed or talked about in junior high, turns out I was wrong. Today a group from our church got the opportunity to spend the morning doing service at a leper colony about a half hour north of Cairo. (Melissa had planned the whole thing, but didn’t get to go, since she’s been sick with a nasty cough the past few days and has hardly slept, and we didn’t think a trip to a leper colony was the best idea for a sick pregnant woman.) We piled in a big bus (donated by Latter-day Saint Charities to a doctors’ group here that travels to rural Egypt to do free eye surgeries for the poor) and drove out into the desert. I didn’t know quite what to expect – this was seriously out of my range – but I was imagining something along the lines of the Pit of Despair, or a scene out of a 1950s B-movie about zombies, with the undead walking around trailing puss-stained bandages and moaning and trying to eat your eyeballs.

What I found instead was a remarkably well-kept village with a number of cheerfully painted buildings and nicely landscaped, if simple, grounds. No zombies, just a bunch of folks who had big smiles and, yes, often a few missing body parts.

We were put to work by a woman named Jihad, a German convert to Islam who comes almost every day to the village to help out. Each group had a different building they were responsible for painting. My group worked on a room that they want to convert into a kitchen, since right now the people in the village have to cook on hotplates on the floor near their beds, which is both dangerous and unsanitary. We cleared the cobwebs from the ceiling and cleaned the dirt-caked walls, and then, as I think is an unwritten rule for church service projects, got nearly as much paint on ourselves as on the walls. And then there were the flies. Apparently when the Israelites followed Moses out of Egypt, the plague of flies stayed behind. At no point during the day did I have less than a swarm of the pesky little things buzzing in my nose, ears, and mouth. The ensuing twitches and jerks trying to swat them away probably didn’t help the quality of my work.

But after about three hours of work, the place looked almost cheery, with light blue walls and dark blue window panes and grates (which I was in charge of). The other group got one side of a building exterior painted, so I’d say it was a productive day for the fourteen of us.

After practically bathing in paint thinner to get rid of the Smurf look, we toured the village. We saw where they bake their daily bread, then went to one of the men’s rooms. There were about a dozen beds lined up against the wall, with men sitting or lying on about half of them. They grinned and said hello as we walked by, toward the back room, where we met two older men who were in a more advanced state of the disease. One of them, known as Sheikh Sahib, is 87 years old and has lived in the village for over 40 years, after being in another leper colony near Alexandria for several years before that. His face is terribly misshapen as a result of his decades-long battle with leprosy, and he has lost his eyes and legs and fingers. But he was thrilled to hear our voices, and chatted up a storm with those who spoke Arabic. He encouraged us to take pictures, as did his friend (pictured).
On our way out we stopped and talked with the other men sitting on their beds, most of whom were missing fingers or noses or ears, but all of whom were eager to chat and take pictures. I’m sure their lives are extremely difficult, and the days are long and lonely, but there was no self-pity while we were there, and they radiated warmth and even humble joy.

I know, I know…it sounds like a story straight out of Sunday School…but I guess not all of those stories, even the ones about the lepers, are just for the Bible. Rest assured, none of the donkeys I’ve seen here (and I’ve seen plenty) have said anything to me, and I’m staying away from big fish, just in case.


5 Responses to “Lepers. Seriously.”

  1. Dre November 12, 2007 at 12:16 am #

    Somehow when I was having children, I never quite pictured one of them visiting a leper colony. Silly me. But a truly noble act.

  2. Jeff November 12, 2007 at 5:18 am #

    According to wikipedia, leprosy is not highly contagious and is treatable, so why do they still have leper colonies? Is it primarily social stigma?

  3. Patrick November 12, 2007 at 9:17 am #

    Good question, Jeff. I wondered the same thing — especially because there are leper colonies in Louisiana and Hawaii too, and you’d think that for sure the disease had been eradicated in the US, if not in places like Egypt. The best answer that I got (although it was from a humanitarian volunteer, not a doctor, so I can’t verify the medical accuracy) is that while there aren’t many new cases of leprosy, because it can be treated if caught early, the colonies are for people who have had it for years if not decades, and who can be treated but not cured. Just anecdotally, most of the patients I saw had to be in their 50s at least, and the village seems to be the best place where their needs can be taken care of, they can receive regular treatment, and form some kind of community together, perhaps something like an assisted living facility for the elderly. But I’d like to find out more definitively.

  4. yvette November 14, 2007 at 1:57 am #

    I agree, extremely noble.. A leper colony is a place that most would shun away from. As with most diseases that leave one disfigured, or those that are unusual in our modern age, we (those that have been fortunate to have typical lives and medical histories) tend to be ignorant and afraid of the unknown or unfamiliar. Kudos to you and those that work with the happy to be alive! Makes us all count our blessings, as I do daily.


  1. We Heart Lepers « State of d’Nile - February 25, 2009

    […] organized another trip out to the Leper Colony last weekend. The last few times the branch has gone out there, I’ve either been pregnant or […]

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