- Posted October 18, 2012 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Photo essays: Your stories in pictures
The Lepers of Mballing
On the last day of my trip to Senegal last year, I met a leper begging on the sandy streets of Mbour named Cheik Fayé. Despite my poor French, I understood he was now cured from the disease that had mutilated him badly and that he had lived most of his life in a small village not far from here. I left him with my address in his pocket, thinking this would be the end of our short-lived friendship. Three months later, to my great surprise, his first letter reached me in Sweden; a warm letter written in a rough style. I understood that I had to return to meet the lepers of Mballing. This week I did.
In 1955 a group of 122 farmers entered the local hospital a few kilometers south of the fishing town of Mbour on the Atlantic shore of Senegal. Only two of the kids were not carrying the disease Leprosy. Assane Kadam, now Chief of the quiet village, was only two years old when his sick mother, carrying him on her back, walked into the hospital to receive treatment. Having nowhere to go, the group decided to settle nearby and so, the village of Maballing was born. Assane’s father Elaye Moussa Kadam was made chief of the village and was soon successful in cooperating with the local government, as long as they stayed away from the rest of the population.
Despite having never seen the ocean, they were given fishing nets. Faye Moussa was the only one healthy enough to fish, so on his first outing, he divided his catch between his family and the rest of the group. Ever since that day they knew they had to cooperate to survive.
It’s been ten years since the last case arrived to Mballing but at it’s peak, during the drought in the 60’s, as many as 2000 people with Leprosy lived in the village. ”Today over 5000 inhabitants walk the streets of the village and only 180 show signs or disabilities due to the disease,” Says chief Kadam.
One of the eldest in the village, Omar Dieng, was a farmer who wanted more from life and became a businessman. Along with wealth, his status grew and soon he was a highly respected man. ”But, that was a long time ago. Another chapter of my life,” he sighs. ”Now I’m married with thirteen kids and we all live here, in this small house.”
”I’m quite lucky and privileged,” says Mamadou Thiam, ”I am strong enough to work. So, I make mattresses for the village, which I sell.” It’s well over 45Cº in the boiling sun. Some kids watch Mamadou’s hard work trying to finish his mattress as soon as possible. ”I’ve done this for 20 years. It gives me enough to eat.”
Dethie Ndiaye on the other hand can’t do anything on her own but sit and crawl. She doesn’t complain: ”There are many of us here and we stick together. One is never lonely nor helpless,” she says. Her eyes are watery. Her lower eyelids hang heavily causing her to have problems closing her eyes. ”There are many healthy children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren here to help us.”,
Ibrahim (43) and Fanta (30) Camara are cousins and were married due to an arranged marriage. Ibrahim’s uncle promised him one of his daughters. The choice came upon Fanta. Today she’s very happy for that. ”Everyone warned me against marrying a leper, but I couldn’t have asked for nicer a man”, she says. ”We have four beautiful and healthy children. My husband works hard at the local fishery. We can pay our bills and he brings home money for food and schooling for the kids, which is more than most men do around here”.
Ibrahim was five years old when his father detected white spots on his back and chin. Soon Ibrahim’s older brother Mamadou also showed signs of being ill. The brothers were treated and cured but nonetheless their problems in the village began. Ibrahim couldn’t understand why his playmates and friends started excluding him, running away as he approached. They were deprived of sharing food and drink and when even their own relatives, scared of unjustified contamination, started to treat them as outcasts, Mamadou and Ibrahim decided they’d had enough. It was time to leave for the village by the water, the ”village of the lepers” which he had heard of from his father.
Fanta and Ibrahim have been married since 1997. They have suffered a lot but things are getting better. Both of them emphasize that social acceptance has improved very much in recent years.”We love each other” Fanta says. ”I know that Ibrahim and I will always be together, no matter what. And our family will continue to grow... with moderation”.