On World Leprosy Day (January 26, 2020), Washington Uba, one of Nigeria’s cerebral documentary photographers, unveiled a storyboard banner, 114ft long, consisting of 4ft x 8 ft frames that displayed the plight of victims of leprosy. The content of the boards were from Uba’s seven-year travel and documentary in leper colonies in Nigeria.
The storyboard ended with a hashtag frame requiring autographs from those at the exhibition. By appending their signatures, they pledged their commitment to spreading the information about the threat of leprosy.
In this Encounter, Uba explained the roots of his advocacy and his drive as a travelling documentary photographer.
What is your motivation for this exhibition?
Of all the vulnerable people I have documented, I found that those affected by leprosy are at the bottom rung of the ladder. I decided to concentrate my photo documentary on them. I embarked on a journey to leper colonies around the countries. I spent seven years documenting their plights. Then I had my first exhibition in 2019, which I entitled “Images of God.” This year, I decided not to show the pitiable situation of leprosy victims, but to create awareness about what they are passing through. This banner is a mix that is historical, academic and a visual representations of the leprosy situation in the country. The storyboard concept is geared towards securing a commitment via autographs from the public.
Where are the colonies you visited?
We have leper colonies scattered all over Nigeria. The first one built in the country was Itu leper colony in Akwa Ibom, built in 1928 and located close to the boundary with Abia State. There is Uzuakoli leper colony in Abia that was built in 1934 and located about 15 poles from where Mary Slessor built her first hospital in the old Calabar province. At the time I visited the two in 2011, Itu was no longer functioning. A Presbyterian Seminary School stands in its place. There is a leper colony in Ossiomo, a boundary town between Edo and Delta. The Methodist Church manages it, but a Catholic organization, Daughters of Charity has a centre there. Other leper colonies are in Ibilo (Edo State), Zaria (opposite the National Tuberculosis and Leprosy Training Centre (NTBLTC), Gusau (Zamfara), Abeokuta (Ogun), Omu Aran (Kwara) and Sokoto. They are scattered all over the country. They all have a similar situation. Inmates man some of these colonies. That tells you the people affected are abandoned by the system.
What are the hazards of travelling around the country doing photo documentaries?
Being tempted to lodge in a cheap hotel. When you have less amount of money, you have to manage and minimize your spending. That is the major challenge we have doing documentaries in this clime. I almost fell into the trap once. A colleague and I ended in this town (permit me not to mention the name) and we ended up in this guest house. The environment was scary. There were no locks on the doors. Questionable characters were moving around. We could sense that something was not okay about the place. There was something wrong with the first room we were given. Ditto the second room. Eventually, we concluded that instead of us staying there and risked having our heads or arms chopped off in the night, it was better we find somewhere safer for the night. We eventually settled for a three-star hotel. That impression never quite leaves my memory; it goes with me as I move around on documentary assignments.
How did you end up doing photo documentaries?
Passion led me there. I studied engineering, a bit of electronics at IMT Enugu and Physics Electronics at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka. I worked as an offshore engineer with Shell for five years. But presently I am involved in artistic endeavours, running my studio and not-for-profit organisation.
Charity took me towards the discovery that I could be an artist using photography as my instrument of social change. Until 2005, I worked in charity organizations for 15 years, where we deployed the camera to push awareness campaign. That was where I started documenting destitute people in Lagos. I was part of the “Dawning Dreams” exhibition in 2006 by Committee for Relevant Art (CORA) at the Lagos Book and Art Festival. It was from there I found the power of photography. Later, I streamlined my effort towards leprosy and have created a group called “Arts Against Leprosy.”
Charity Care Network Initiative, the non-profit organization I run, caters generally to the less privileged. With branches in Agbor, Kano, Port Harcourt and Lagos, we pay hospital bills for those who could not afford it. Occasionally, we visit and donate materials to destitute homes.
So, what’s new about leprosy?
The world thought the war against leprosy was won years ago when the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared in 2005 that leprosy is no longer a public health problem. But presently, we have 220, 000 people being affected by leprosy globally. These are victims who have come out for diagnosis. What about those who could not come out because of stigmatization and fear of quarantine? If we have such figure globally and officially, that means the real number of those affected is much higher. That is why the campaign now has to be intensified. Leprosy is becoming a threat to mankind. The colonies I went to, I didn’t see any government impact there. If the Ministry of Information deploys its full arsenal as we had in the days of MAMSER and DFRRI, the society will become more aware, stigmatization will reduce and more people will submit themselves to diagnosis. Isn’t it shameful to mankind that the oldest disease is still threatening us?