Saturday, 3rd June 2023

Shut out by government, Ogun Leprosarium striving to fix its challenges

By Gbenga Akinfenwa
26 March 2023   |   4:51 am
Last year, medical authorities raised the alarm over the resurgence of leprosy cases in the country. Serious concerns are being raised that Nigeria is still among the few countries in the world that are still reporting cases of the disease in the 21st century.

Ogun State leprosarium

Last year, medical authorities raised the alarm over the resurgence of leprosy cases in the country. Serious concerns are being raised that Nigeria is still among the few countries in the world that are still reporting cases of the disease in the 21st century.

Leprosy is a chronic infectious disease caused by a type of bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae. The disease affects the skin, the peripheral nerves, mucosa of the upper respiratory tract, and the eyes. It is curable and the treatment from the early stages can prevent disability. Apart from the physical deformity, persons affected by leprosy also face stigmatisation and discrimination.

The anecdotal evidence from the National Leprosy review suggests that pockets of leprosy endemic can be traced in almost every state of the federation. This was linked to the fact that the country is bordered by several countries.

One of the factors identified as the cause of the sudden resurgence, is the alleged clear negligence associated with cases of the disease. Medical experts linked this to the relegation of the malignant disease to the background in the politics of national healthcare policies.

Experts are raising fears that if the disease is not contained in the best possible time, it could degenerate into an epidemic, considering the highly contagious and devastating nature of leprosy.

One of the drastic steps taken in the past, to stem the tide and also ward-off cases of stigmatisation and discrimination was the establishment of lepers’ colony to put the disease at bay.  A total of 64 leprosy settlements were built across the country to accommodate the inmates. One of them is the Iberekodo Lepers’ Colony, Abeokuta, Ogun State.

But like other leprosariums, the colony is in an appalling condition due to lack of basic amenities, food and general social security. During the visit to the colony, located at the outskirts of the ancient town, it was obvious that the colony is plagued with deplorable roads, dilapidated structures, absence of perimeter fence, lack of potable water, and insecurity, among other challenges.

The inhabitants have over the years been confronted with the menace of stigmatisation, especially due to the physical deformity, which hinder them from being reintegrated into their respective families and communities.

To the inmates, life in the colony is a rude departure from what can be regarded as normal. Aside from the buildings erected in 1908 by missionaries with rusted corrugated iron sheets, trees and sheer remains of some dilapidated buildings surrounded by bushes, the people, nothing at the colony indicates that the lepers living there are entitled to decent living conditions.

A 38-year-old Sunday Olaitan, an indigene of Oja-Odan, in Yewa Local Council of the state, who has spent 20 years in the colony, lamented the state of neglect and their struggle to survive. “I was very young when this disease started, I just discovered some reddish spots on my skin, even my father doesn’t understand what it was. It later started causing deformity to my fingers and toes.

“That was when it was discovered that it was leprosy. Even after the discovery, I was not taken to anywhere to get urgent treatment; it was local drugs that were being administered on me. It was then I was told to come to this place.

“Since I got here, I was able to attend primary school, I learnt how to sell motorcycle parts and that’s what I am doing for a living. I am married here with two kids.”

Another inmate, Mrs. Adeola Olanrewaju, who has spent over 30 years in the colony, said she came all the way from Oyo State. “When I got here, this place was still like a desert, and only a few people were here. We were farming here to survive, planting vegetables and other crops before the land grabbers invaded parts of the land and caused us more hardship and pain. We are only surviving here through the grace of God; we have resigned to fate here.”

Olanrewaju said though for many years the issue of stigmatisation was much, but currently it has reduced to the barest minimum as she could go to market to buy and sell without any discrimination. She said though there are cases of stigmatisation against some of the members, but she doesn’t feel stigmatised, noting that though some were doing such before but she has been going to the market to buy and sell without let or hindrance.

With no particular helper, forsaken by their relations, they have been forced to adjust to the harsh reality that they might never return home alive. Though they have busied themselves with farming and other menial jobs, which is the only viable engagement, they still struggle to survive the ravages of hunger.

The Guardian was reliably informed that the state government placed the inhabitants on a stipend of N10, 000 per month, but the stipend is considered too small. Considering the rate of inflation and economic hardship in the country, the inmates do not go to bed with their stomach full.

According to the Chairman of the Ogun State Integrated Dignity Economic Advancement (IDEA), the association that caters for people affected with leprosy, Jimoh Ahmed, he said in the last nine years, the stipend has not been increased.

Ahmed said: “We normally farm, but since there’s no place to farm anymore, we have tried to diversify into skill acquisition. We organise lectures on entrepreneurship and skill for our people – soap making and other crafts, which some are still carrying to the market to sell.

Investigations showed that the inmates sometimes take to begging in town, though not without punishment or sanctions whenever it gets to the knowledge of the government.

But of all the challenges faced by the colony, lack of potable water seems to be a major threat to the existence of the inhabitants. For several years, the colony solely relied on water supply from the Ogun State Water Corporation, which many call public water free of charge. But in 2020, the water supply ceased due to a major problem from the water corporation and the inmates struggled to trek long distances to get water.

During the period, a non-governmental organisation, Damien Foundation, Belgium, an NGO from Belgian people to support the Nigerian government on treating Tuberculosis and Leprosy, came to their aid with the provision of a borehole, well set up and supported with water tanks. Though getting it done did not come on a platter of gold due to the topography of the area, their efforts paid off during their second attempt.

The borehole did not only bring the needed succour to the camp and other neighbouring communities, it also put an end to the trekking of long distances to get water at all costs.

The Deputy Country Representative, Damien Foundation, who doubles as the Head of Technical Unit of the foundation’s projects in Nigeria, Dr. Muse Olatunbosun Fadeyi, told The Guardian that they embarked on the borehole project, based on their needs assessment of the settlement.

“When we got there, we had a meeting with the settlement, we discussed with them on what their major issue is, among other things they mentioned, and the issue of water was the most important thing on their mind. So, we set the ball rolling. We tried to give them a borehole – we tried once, we dug almost 200 metres but we couldn’t get water, so we tried another one situated at the present place, we got water there and we made sure it is accessible to the people.

“Damien Foundation, Belgium is an NGO from Belgian people to support the Nigerian government on treating Tuberculosis and Leprosy. Our main aim is to alleviate some of their problems most especially those of them living in the settlement. The idea is that we want to always resettle all of them within the community but you’ll still have some of them that remain in the settlement.

“So, these people are neglected and the Damien Foundation makes it one of its focuses. We’ve been to virtually most of the settlements in the Southwest – Oyo, Kwara, Osun states, doing the same thing.”

Continuing, Dr. Fadeyi said: “It wasn’t only water we did to the settlement, issue of waste disposal was also part of their challenges, and most of the toilets around have been damaged. They usually go to the bush to pass feaces. We also constructed toilets there for them.

“Another issue we addressed was sponsoring their children to school, because of their condition they could hardly send their children to school, so we set up what we call a back-to-school project for them too. We paid their school fees, bought books, uniforms, school bags and others, even, some of them are currently in Tertiary Institutions that we are still sponsoring, that’s just what we have been doing for them.”

While appreciating the gesture, Jimoh said: “I want to thank some of the NGOs for their support because in the last two years we faced water issues, but some of the NGOs came to our aid and provided us with potable water. One of them is Damien Foundation, based in Ibadan, Oyo State – a foundation that caters for people with leprosy.

“The first borehole they drilled in the colony with about N1.8m failed because they couldn’t get water. They didn’t relent; they returned after a few months and dug another one, which we are using now. Since then, we have been in good control of the water.

“Damien Foundation also provided a block of modern toilets for us. The toilet is enough because we have another block of toilets within the community though pit latrines. There is promise from them to provide us with more toilets in the course of time,” said Ahmed.

Though the provision of water solved their major problem, it opened up another challenge – lack of power supply to power the borehole. According to Ahmed, due to lack of electricity, the dream of the foundation to ensure that the inmates have regular water supply was not achieved. “This prompted them to purchase a generating set for us to power the borehole. It’s not that we are not connected to the national grid; the problem is that all the electric poles supplying light have spoilt.

“In the last four years, one of our donors, who lives in the United Kingdom bought us some poles but they are not as strong as the previous ones. Termites have eaten them up, but for our self efforts, the poles would have fallen and worsen the case.”

Though Dr. Fadeyi said the foundation has “always been giving them a token to buy fuel to power the generating set, The Guardian learnt that fuelling the generating set has become another burden to the inmates who are feeding from hand to mouth. “We usually tax ourselves to get money for the fuel to power the generating set, even whenever we want to service the generating set, we usually tax everyone.”

It was learnt that most times, especially when the issue of fuel hike was tough, the community found it very hard to get fuel to power the borehole, bringing back the memory of their dark days of water scarcity.

Despite the interventions, to say the community is currently water dependent is far from the truth. Ahmed told The Guardian that despite the provision of water, “we don’t have enough water yet. At times, we still go outside the colony to fetch water for our use.” He noted that if water supply from the water corporation has been flowing as expected, it would have covered for the shortfall the colony is still experiencing.

Ahmed said: “Since the water corporation resumed water supply this year, we couldn’t get access to water supply because many of the pipes bringing water here have been badly damaged, which has become a challenge.

“For now, we can no longer have access to public water. If we have access to that, the colony can boast of having enough water supplies for our use. Despite the provision of water here, we don’t have enough water yet. At times, we still go outside the colony to fetch water for our use.”

While hoping for a solution to their hydra-headed challenges, they are unanimously appealing to the state government to look into their plight. Ahmed appealed to Governor Dapo Abiodun and other NGOs to support members of the colony to boost their businesses, in order to survive, adding that an NGO gave out a freezer to one of them to sell sachet water and drinks.

On their part, Olanrewaju and Olaitan called for support from individuals and NGOs to provide empowerment for them and their children. “With the country’s current economic downturn, we need empowerment and scholarship for our children. We don’t have hands to farm and do any other job anymore, what we need is support to stay alive.”

The insightful development about the support and response from the colony inhabitants is that communities are getting equipped to solve challenges of infrastructure deficiencies in their various domains, when they seem to have been neglected by the government that is saddled with such responsibility.
• This story was produced with the support of Nigeria Health Watch through the Solutions Journalism Network, a non-profit organisation dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting.

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