Bamigbola Gbolagunte, Akure
Lepers at the Camp of Hope, otherwise known as “Ago Ireti” in Oba Ile, Akure, Ondo State, have ugly tales to tell and horrible experiences to share. This is due to the poor welfare and terrible conditions of living they are subjected to in the 75-year-old colony.
The general practice is to isolate lepers from where members of the society live. They are confined to a secluded environment and they are not allowed to do like others or enjoy what others enjoy in the larger society.
The lepers in this colony live in total despair, sorrow and hopelessness. Peace, comfort and happiness have eluded them as they have no access to basic amenities needed for decent human living.
Secretary of Ago Ireti community, Mr. Tunji Oluwatimilehin, disclosed that the former Deji of Akure, Oba Afunbiowo dedicated the land to people living with leprosy in 1943. Since then the camp has been a place of abode for lepers, but that nothing has been done to improve on the facilities at the colony.
He said the place was about 10km to the town then, because of the belief that lepers should live in isolation. The inmates then used bamboo and leaves to build their houses and usually got destroyed within days by termites.
Respite came the way of the people living within the camp when a Commissioner for Health in the old Western Region, Mr. Eyesorun Ademuwagun, built the first mud house for the inmates: “A special committee headed by Dr. Sijuwade was put in place then, when they realized the inmates needed special medical attention. It was the recommendation of the committee that brought two medical personnel from India, Dr. Khrishma and Dr. George who took care of people in the colony. They were assisted by some reverend sisters from St Louis Catholic Church, Akure.”
Oluwatimilehin said the people living in the colony were able to attract the attention of the defunct Western Region Government and placed each leper in the colony on one shilling a month in 1970: “This money started to increase as the economy of the country was improving. The lepers did not know why the two Indian doctors were chased away, but they were replaced by some Nigerian doctors who also took care of our people. We are faced with many challenges since the advent of this democratic dispensation.”
He disclosed that the inmates sent a Save Our Soul (SOS) to the government of the late Adebayo Adefarati, in 1999: “There was no one to take care of us then. The government of Adefarati approved the sum of N2,000 for a leper.
“Adequate attention was given to us then. Dr. Olusegun Mimiko was the Commissioner for Health, and health workers were drafted to the colony. Life became a little bit different from what it used to be. They showed us love and gave us some sense of belonging.”
He said Mimiko ensured that the monthly stipend was jerked up to N4,000 before the expiration of Adefarati’s administration. It was subsequently increased to N4,500 during Dr. Olusegun Agagu’s administration: “In 2009, when Mimiko came on board, his government increased it to N8,000. Within two months, he jerked it up to N10,000. “Mimiko gave us a 14-seater bus, re-built our health center and a hall was put in place where we usually meet to pray and worship or receive visitors.”
The lepers at Ago Ireti said every one of them would forever live to remember a foreign foundation, Demian Foundation Belgium, which put smiles on their faces. It renovated two of the buildings and constructed two toilets for them: “We don’t know how they got to know about our plight. When they saw our condition and most of the buildings, which were at the state of collapse, they demolished the whole building and built a new structure. They also distributed writing materials, school bags and other materials to our children. They also bought a motorcycle for the home to convey our women and children to the market.”
A walk round the colony showed that some new structures were put in place by the foundation. The structures are to accommodate an inmate with every facility; toilet, kitchen and bathroom.
Oluwatimilehin, 58, and a graduate of Poultry Management from Suguna Institute of Poultry Management in Canada, however, lamented neglect from family, friends and even government. However, he commended members of Akure Owena Lions Club and the Rotary Club for their frequent assistance.
A leper at the colony, Amos Alo, said for someone who had been accustomed to comfort, living in the colony is a clear departure from comfort. He said most of the facilities put in place in the camp were donated to the home by the Rotary and Lion clubs: “The two clubs have put in place boreholes and a school for our children.”
Mrs. Eunice David, another inmate, lamented: “We have been in darkness for many months since the Ministry of Health refused to pay the electricity bill. We can no longer pump water from the boreholes because there is no electricity to power these boreholes.
“The home presented the bill to the ministry when it was N20,000, but the ministry failed to pay the bill. This eventually shot up to N385,000. The home resorted to the use of a generating set, and rely solely on donations from people to power it.”
Asked how they managed to sponsor their wards’ education. David said many of the children attended public schools: “Four of the children who are undergraduates stopped going to school because of the newly introduced school fees at the Adekunle Ajasin University (AAU), Akungba Akoko, because their parents could not afford the fees.”
She informed that she has spent more than 30 years in the colony, even as she complained of neglect. She made case for assistance from government individuals: “Since a new government in this state came on board, no official of government has been here. Although Governor Rotimi Akeredolu sent one cow and five bags of rice to us during the last Christmas, we want him to visit us and attend to our plight.”
Eunice Ogunseke, another inmate: “I have been here for over 42 years. The only person who visited me died last November. We need help and government support. The paltry amount they give us can neither feed nor clothe us or our dependents.”
She lamented that she could hardly feed herself as she had lost all her fingers and toes:
“All I can eat is bread. I take bread and tea day everyday because that is the only food I can hold with my hands. No one to feed me, no relative, no helper.” She recalled that one of the All Progressives Congress (APC) governorship aspirants, Dr. Segun Abraham, used to host them.
One hundred-year-old Ezekiel Ekundayo, from Ekiti State, an inmate, said living in the home has been a terrible experience. He has spent over 50 years in the colony: “I have learnt to endure the harsh life here but this pain is getting unbearable. No water, no toilet, no good food to eat and people avoid us like lepers that we truly are.”
A wife of the inmate, Mrs. Olagunju, who estimated the population of the home to be more than 500, said many of the lepers live from hand to mouth: “Our children need help. We have brilliant and intelligent children but we don’t have the financial capacity to send them to school. We need help because we don’t want our children to suffer. They are not infected and they need to live at least a normal life and get educated.” Inmates appreciated government for putting in place a health centre in the colony. Pa Alo:
“If we do not die from fear of isolation and stigmatization, we should not be left to die of hunger, neglect and pain. We cannot return home and we should be made happy here.”
All attempts to speak with officials of the ministry of health in charge of the lepers were not successful, but an authoritative source in the ministry who spoke on condition of anonymity confirmed neglect at the lepers’ colony.