Island sanctuary for the afflicted

One of the houses in the island leprosy colony.
One of the houses in the island leprosy colony.
For a small country at the bottom of the world, New Zealand sure has a long reach, discovers South Otago author Diana Noonan.

Rural Thailand is one of the least likely places in which to encounter a snippet of the South Island, so I was bemused, on a recent visit to Chiang Mai, to find a well-weathered plaque on a tiny house just 2km from the city, bearing the words ``Canterbury Westland Region of New Zealand''.

The house was one in a row of identical, diminutive dwellings lining a short, neat street on an island in the Ping River.

Wherever I am in the world, I am always drawn towards gardens, so I soon found myself peering into a bright flowerbed outside one of these tiny cottages. Before I had time to move away, the gardener appeared, and so began a conversation in two languages augmented with a great deal of smiling and, on my part, a lot of pointing.

I say ``on my part'' because even if my new-found gardening friend had wanted to point, she couldn't; the fingers of both her hands were missing. It was my first encounter with the damage that leprosy can do.

Produce from the thriving market gardens.
Produce from the thriving market gardens.
The village of tiny houses is just one dimension of the International Leprosy Association's McKean Rehabilitation Centre in the north of Thailand, a cluster of administrative buildings, hospital wings, workshops, craft centres, homes and, more recently, a leading state-of-the-art residential care centre for the elderly. And all of it set among leafy lanes, green fields, fish ponds and thriving market gardens. This is not a centre where residents or patients take a passive role. It is an active, sustainable community which does everything it can to maximise independent living for all those who pass through it, and for the handful who remain as fulltime residents.

The care of leprosy patients in northern Thailand dates back to 1907, when American missionary Dr James W. McKean approached Chiang Mai's then ruler, Chao Inthawarorot, to ask for land on which could be established a leper colony. What eventuated was the donation of an island that had once been used to house elephants belonging to local rulers. Eschewed by the surrounding population who believed the island was haunted by the spirit of a rogue white elephant, the land became a home for those whose leprosy had led to their own community rejecting them.

Uncle Wang sweeps leaves.
Uncle Wang sweeps leaves.
Over the years, much work has been done to change the attitude of local people towards leprosy patients, and one of the most ingenious methods employed in the past involved the community's two large fish ponds, built as a way to teach patients to raise fish and, therefore, support themselves. Staff at the centre realised the ponds could also be used to draw in the people of the surrounding community who dearly loved to fish. To make the prospect irresistible, McKean staff organised a competition (with prizes) for the best catch.

Very slowly, local people armed with fishing rods tentatively ventured on to an island they had previously shunned. Some were so fearful of contracting leprosy they even asked staff to wash themselves in water from the pond to prove it wasn't infected. But the ploy worked. While the fishermen dipped their lines in the water, staff spoke to them, slowly winning their trust and convincing them there was nothing to fear from leprosy patients.

The result is that almost all of McKean Centre's patients have been able to return home to the families and villages that previously excluded them. Only those with no family to return to, the very elderly, or those who have been at the centre for so long that independent living would prove too difficult, now remain. And it is the tiny cottages, some financed through donations from New Zealand, that are their homes.

 Meals on wheels Thai-style.
Meals on wheels Thai-style.
While I was still ``chatting'' to my gardening friend, meals-on-wheels arrived aboard a motor scooter's sidecar, so I said my goodbyes and meandered along a dirt trail wondering how one handled a trowel and fork without fingers. I needn't have concerned myself. As I rounded a corner, I came upon an elderly man with a broom clutched in the crook of his elbow, and steadied by two fingerless hands. He was sitting on the ground (he had only one leg), shuffling from place to place while he swept great piles of leaves into mounds.

Before I could stop him, he was taking me on a tour of the community composting system. The leaf raking isn't something Uncle Wang (as he is affectionately known) is required to do. He has a perfectly adequate senior's pension - and the meals on wheels are for him, too. But he likes to contribute to the centre's organic garden, and composting is something he can do.

On my way back to the administration centre, I was passed by a stream of bicycle-riding tourists (the island is so scenic that tour groups frequently come through). A little further on, a group of residents was sitting in the shade while being instructed in the art of making organic fish food.

The plaque above the front door of a house.
The plaque above the front door of a house.
In many ways, the island environment seems so idyllic, and the centre to run so smoothly, that it comes as quite a shock to learn from staff that leprosy is still, in 2018, a deadly disease which can destroy lives if not caught in time. And for those who contract it, the stigma is often as great as it was in the past. So much so, that essential medication which can halt the spread of the disease must often be secretly delivered to sufferers who, if it was found they had contracted leprosy, would certainly lose their jobs.

Before I left the centre, I was shown round the hospital workshops where those who have been disabled from the disease have proven the ``wound is the eye'' by deftly designing and manufacturing prosthetic equipment they know will work for fellow leprosy patients. It is ingeniously fashioned from inexpensive parts that are easily replaced should they fail through wear and tear. A simple spring, for example, is designed to stretch and contract to help a patient lift an unresponsive foot as they walk.

On my way home past the handcraft centre, where expert artists fashion carvings, prints and jewellery, and teach these skills to patients who can take home the skills as a way of supporting themselves, I purchased some pretty cards. They were printed with bright flowers and reminded me of the garden outside the tiny cottage that had been built through the generous donations of New Zealanders.

 

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