Uzuakoli leprosy center, a colony of abandoned folks
From Steve Oko, Umuahia
A visit to the Methodist Church Leprosy Centre, Uzuakoli, Abia State, leaves one with indelible picture of a rehabilitation camp under gross neglect and abandonment. Most of the colonial structures at the famous centre which provided sucour to patients with leprosy right from the colonial era have dilapidated almost irredeemably. Some of the buildings have been abandoned while others are in very sorry state including the chapel where the late gospel music legend, Ikoli Harcourt White who was also an inmate at the colony composed his ageless inspirational and therapeutic albums. His grave is by the side of the chapel with leaky roof.
The few habitable structures at the centre serve as hospital for leprosy patients, administrative blocks and staff quarters as well as camp for discharged patients who can no longer return to their villages. The centre is located at a large expanse of land in the sleepy Imenyi community, Usuakoli.
The centre established in 1932 by the Methodist Missionaries serves as a rehabilitation and treatment centre for leprosy patients. Till today, the centre provides free medical services to persons diagnosed with leprosy. Currently, it is jointly run in partnership with the Methodist Church of Nigeria, the Abia State Government, and the German Leprosy and TB Relief Association.
Apart from serving as a rehabilitation camp for victims of leprosy, the centre is also engaged in so many other humanitarian services. Project Director of the centre, Very Rev. Innocent Ekeke in an interview with our Correspondent during a visit to the centre, shed more light on the activities of the centre as well as how the management had remained afloat amidst paucity of funds and zero aid from government.
He explained that apart from providing medical treatment to leprosy patients , the centre also runs a special free primary school for the children of the patients as well as staff who cannot afford the cost of training their children in public or private schools in town.
” Apart from education, under our welfare department, we run a motherless babies home. We also have a rehabilitation camp for the ex-leprosy patients who can’t return to their homes. They are mostly the aged and those severely disabled. We currently have 23 inmates. Besides we also have a centre for TB cases under our medical unit.”
The cleric who said he had been living in the centre since 1995, added that apart from the 23 ex- patients still catered for in the centre, 12 patients are currently on admission at the ward. He said the centre receives an average of six new cases a month. “Some of the patients come , receive medication and go back to their homes”, he added.
He further explained that patients from various states in the South East and South South geopolitical zones come to the centre for treatment .
The Project Director who identified dirty environment as one of the major causes of leprosy urged members of the public to stay away from dirty environments and improve on personal and environmental hygienes. He particularly frowned at traders who display their wares especially food stuff and meat on dirty grounds, warning that the poor hygiene at abattoirs and markets put Nigerians at a high risk of leprosy.
He warned that if nothing drastic was done to improve on the poor sanitary mentality of Nigerians especially traders, ” there will be an epidemic of leprosy by 2020″. He gave a shocking revelation that a recent random test of students in some tertiary institutions in the state showed that some of the students had symptoms of leprosy. The project according to him was embarked upon by the centre to ascertain the rate of new cases among presumed hygiene- conscious individuals. ” If students could show symptoms of leprosy then wonder what happens with the uneducated and poor rural dwellers!” He yelled.
” People should watch their environment . Government should also monitor where water bore holes are sunk. Some people even sink boreholes where corpses are buried. All this has to stopped to avoid the risk of leprosy”.
The Project Director said that apart from giving free treatment to patients, the centre also rehabilitates ex- patients who usually don’t have hope of earning a living. He said that the centre under its Welfare Department had built houses for no fewer than 58 ex- patients in their communities in various states after they were cured. He also said that five ex- patients are currently studying in the university under the scholarship programme of the centre while two are in secondary school, and skill acquisition centre respectively.
But the centre is currently facing serious financial challenges as the state government in the recent times is no longer forthcoming with its counterpart funding and obligations according to the Project Director. The situation became worse this year (2016) when the German partner according to him, also stopped its financial grants to the centre limiting its contributions only to free drugs. This development left the church alone with the burden of catering for the inmates.
The Project Director, lamented the abandonment of the centre by the state government. He regretted that instead of encouraging the church for its sacrifices in setting up the centre, by regularly paying its counterpart fund, government shows no concern over the plights of the inmates .
He said that for the past five years, the state government had stopped paying its monthly counterpart fund of N50, 000 , amounting to a debt of N4.8 million .
His words :” The state government has been owing us for five years totaling N4,800,000. What government is after is to grab any little grant from the WHO for Tuber-clauses treatment.
” It does not cary out any maintenance in the centre. It is because of this non challant attitude of Government that our German partners stopped giving financial grants to the hospital this year saying that all three partners must be committed.”
He, however, explained that the German partners , apart from sending drugs for the treatment of patients, also sends N910,000 annually to the Welfare Department of the centre for its other humanitarian activities. Asked how much that is needed to effectively run the centre, including catering for the patients and the ex- patients, the Project Director said that with N3 million annual grant, the centre will thrive.
” If we can perform wonders with the N910,000 annual grant from Germany with the little we generate internally, imagine what we can achieve if we get N3 million per annum”, he said. He identified proceeds from its palm plantation and agricultural activities as major sources of internally generated revenue for the centre. He, however, regretted that the IGR nosedived following the vandalism of the centre’s oil mill by the host community over unpaid rents.
” We pay N300,000 here as rent per annum. We have been paying rent since inception. But when we could not pay them again, they came here and vandailised our oil mill. We want government to secure the land and donate to the centre since we are doing a charity work. All our services here are free of charge.” He noted that in other states, land was secured and donated to leprosy centres because of the enormous job they render to society.
He expressed more disappointment on the poor attitudes of Government towards the welfare of the inmates at the colony, noting that apart from the Governor of the Old Imo State, Gen. Ike Nwachukwu, no other Governor or even Commissioner for Health had visited the colony.
” Ike Nwachukwu came here wearing shorts and met me planting palm seedling on the farm and asked me if i knew him and i said no. He asked me other questions and our challenges and i told him. After two days he came with a truck load of items including food stuff for the inmates. He told me to stop planting the seedlings by myself as a Reverend but to supervise the work. Since then , no other Governor has visited us.”
The Project Director who was fetched from the farm where he was planting “Ogbono seedlings” as part of efforts to shore up the revenue base of the centre when The Authority visited the colony, urged Government to sit up on its obligations to the centre.
” Government doesn’t seem to appreciate how much we are doing for them. If we allow the patients to go on the street, there will be hazard. But we are keeping them here , doing government’s job for it, yet it does not complement our efforts. Leprosy has been reduced but not completely eradicated.
” Even as the Project Director, I don’t have any official vehicle although I am not complaining because our service is unto God . One of the days i went to Abala to resettle an ex- patient i was almost killed if not for God’s grace. The ex- patient’s step mother said I should not build a house for a leper in their village. She went and hired some bad elements to deal with us but we told her that she had been completely healed”.
But when contacted, the Commissioner for Health, Dr. John Ahukanna, blamed the inability of the state government to pay its counterpart funding on paucity of funds following the dwindling economy.He explained that the action was not deliberate as government’s inability to meet with its financial obligations was not peculiar to Abia State.
” States are experiencing lean resources and that is responsible for delays in responsibilities of governments not just Abia alone. So, if there were delays they were not deliberate because if we don’t have, we can’t give.”
The Commissioner, however said government would investigate to know exactly when last, subventions were given to the colony.But when reminded that N50,000 monthly stipend is too meager a sum for a state government to default in, he said ” if you give me N50,000 i will jump”.
On the grabbing of WHO grants for TB treatments, he said it was not possible to tamper or divert the funds from donor agencies because such agencies have a mechanism to ensure their funds are utilised according to purpose.He said that donor agencies have a way of channeling their funds directly into the projects for which they are meant without passing it through any third party including government. The Commissioner, however said ” I can’t be speaking for an administration I was not part of, I can only speak for the one I am serving”.
Reacting to the allegation of three months salary arrears owed nurses in the colony, the Commissioner simply said ” the state nurses may mot be owed differently from other state civil servants”.
Meanwhile, the Project Director had while reacting to a question on how the staff at the colony protect themselves against contracting the infectious ailment as they attend to patients, said that contrary to erroneous perceptions , leprosy especially the one under treatment is not “all that contagious.”
” Leprosy is mildly infectious. We are not at risk because the patients here are under medication. It is hard to transmit the disease if the patient is receiving treatment. Those that are dangerous are the ones begging on the streets. Some of them have cancerous wounds, those ones are the ones dangerous.”
Corroborating this assertion, one of the nurses at the centre who pleaded not to be mentioned said they sometimes attend to the patients without wearing hand gloves or face masks so as not to hurt their emotions. ” If we wear gloves they feel that they have contracted a disease that makes them to be avoided by all, so, in order to give them that sense of belonging we attend to them without wearing gloves”, she said.
The nurse who said they were deployed to the centre by the Abia State Ministry of Health decried their poor working conditions and lack of motivation by government. She said they were still being owed three months salary arrears . She also noted that there were no befitting schools around the colony for the kids of staff living in the remote enclave.
Meanwhile, the living condition of the ex- patients living in a camp within the colony is not enviable. Our Correspondent had to seize his breath to be able to take a shot through the window of the apartment of one of the ex- patients, due to unfriendly smell oozing out from the room. The man, believed to be in his late 70s has lived in the colony for over 30 years according to the officials of the centre. He hails from Nkporo in Ohafia Local Government Area of the state. He was not married and could not return home.
Similarly, his next- door neighbour, also believed to be nearing 80 years, was having hectic time trying to adjust himself in a bowl to ease himself when our correspondent called. His both feet had been completely eaten up by leprosy although the wounds had healed , thereby making movement very labourious for him. He was also said to be unmarried and could not return to his Arochukwu native home having lived in the colony for over 30 years. Although an official of the centre said that they provide food for the inmates every day, the sanitary condition of the aged inmates calls for serious concern.
Some of the pale-looking ex-patients told our correspondent to help them beg government and public spirited individuals and organisations to come to their aid. They commended the management of the colony for habouring them and pleaded for more assistance to better their lots.
Some of the patients at the ward who were observed with crutches at the sit- out in front of the colonial building were somewhat hostile as they bluntly turned down request by our Correspondent to take their shots even when they were assured that their faces would be cropped off or blurred. They rather asked our Correspondent to pose with them if he actually wanted to take their shots. Scared by such a condition our correspondent retreated pre-cautiously.
One of the dilapidated structures in the colony over grown by weeds. Photo by Steve Oko.
Palm plantation within the colony which serves as its internal source of revenue.
The rehabilitation camp for ex- patients who are unwilling to return to their native homes.
Steve Oko (08038725600)
Umuahia, Abia State-based Journalist.
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