Women of Leprosy in Ethiopia
By Jonathan Alpeyrie
Leprosy has been for many centuries, in Ethiopia, a sickness with enormous social implications. The physical consequences of catching such an illness has forced many infected by the disease into a solitary life or, at best, into leper’s colonies through out the country. With medicinal progress and campaigns to explain to locals that leprosy is not contagious amongst humans, some understanding of the illness has made headway in the country.
Such a change can be seen in the capital where an entire hospital was built, mostly with European money, to deal with this lingering sickness. The Alert hospital, as locals commonly name it, specializes in skin illnesses, and mostly with leprosy. Situated in the heart of a leper colony in Southern Addis Ababa where thousands of lepers live and raise their families. It treats thousands of people each year, locals often coming from far away in remote areas to get treatment. The hallways are usually loaded with dozens of families from the countryside, bringing sick family members, often after a long and tenuous travel. They wait for a day or two sometimes to see a specialized doctor. For the really ill ones, rooms are available almost free of cost, as foreign money keeps the institution afloat. The doctors, clad in white are always available, separating lepers from infectious diseases, putting the most sick in specially equipped rooms, which usually contain 6 to 8 beds. Amputation, a rather common affair in the world of leprosy is always done inside the hospital by a specially trained surgeon.
The presence of the Alert hospital in the slum has changed the life of many lepers in Ethiopia, but foremost has saved thousands of lives living inside this ghetto where local officials rarely venture. Constant danger, rampant poverty, and no sanitation has left thousands living inside this slum stranded outside Ethiopian society with no hope to climb the social ladder. The slum was created, like so many before it, to forget the leprosy problem, seen as an evil due to its quite graphic nature, leaving the unfortunates who contract the sickness scarred for life. Inside the slum the women cover themselves in a white sheet. The white repels the intrusive stares of others, and marks them as lepers.
But not all is bleak. A group of women with leprosy have gotten together to fight their condition. They created a small business where a dozen or so of these women knit and put together traditional garments and bed sheets. Using bare hands and ancient machinery, these women have managed to earn a small salary from the sale of their crafts. Kelebe, 60 years old, is one of these women. She arrived in the slum from the Northern part of the country to start over and perhaps find a better life after her husband died. She brought with her, her children, cousins, and other relatives, to increase their chances of survival. Once here, she was quickly reminded that her condition would not make life easy for her and her family. She managed to find a shack with metal roofing, dirt floors and mud walls. She, did not give up however, and joined the businesswomen. The fruit of her work has helped to feed herself as well as her family members. In fact it has allowed her to prosper, buy new clothes and give some schooling to the youngest in her family.
With an ongoing fixed price of 50$ for the most expensive bedding, the little company has been able to sustain itself for a few years now, feeding a dozen families. However this small group seems to be the exception to the rule. Most lepers in the slum keep starving; their offspring have no more future than their parents did before them, and the government seems uninterested in helping this portion of the population.