Ali Isa looks forlorn and dejected in the midst of some four elderly men under a tree providing them with a shade in the centre of Al-Heri community also known as Abuja Leprosy Colony.
The Leprosy colony is about 73 kilometres away from Abuja situated on Abuja-Lokoja expressway.
But written all over Isa is evidence that he has been through a lot- suffered and survived leprosy and now struggles to survive the pangs of poverty in an abandoned community.
At an advanced age, he provides leadership to the colony that is home to over 400 persons who have suffered from leprosy and at least 200 others who have infiltrated the community since its creation more than 10 years ago.
The Leprosy Endemic In Nigeria
Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease is caused by a slow-spreading bacteria, causing long lasting nerve damage and lesions to hands, feet and the eyes, leading to amputations, paralysis and blindness in severe cases.
Over 3,500 people are diagnosed in Nigeria yearly according to the NCDC, but this mostly due to a huge gap in diagnosis due to the stigma and fear associated with the disease.
Dr. Sunday Udo, the director of the Leprosy Mission in Nigeria has stated that 95 per cent of cases are not diagnosed until the disease has become advanced, which is when it mostly leads to disabilities.
Leprosy is curable with a combination of antibiotics, using multidrug therapy (MDT), but many of those affected by the disease have no access to treatment, and are diagnosed when the illness has already taken its course.
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo through Nasir El-Rufai who was the Minister of FCT between 2003 and 2007 created the colony and relocated the lepers from Durumi, Abuja Municipal Area Council (AMAC) because the government did not want them to litter the city as beggars.
One of the reasons the government relocated the colony was to protect them as a number of them in the past were victims of road accidents.
More than 10 years after, the once beautiful community with 90 two-room shelters to each family is abandoned and lacks government attention. The buildings were heavily worn out with deplorable toilet facilities, corroded zinc roofs, and lack of adequate water supply.
Isa says the community suffers from complete neglect, being cut off from the affluence of the nation’s capital. For him and his people, they are yet to see what the government promised them when they were being relocated. Their health care centre, school, water and electricity have all broken down.
He recalls that he and his members received monthly stipends from the government – N4000 each and N6000 for him as the leader. But this has since stopped when El-Rufai exited office as Minister of the FCT in 2007.
The community which then boasted of new facilities and a clinic for the lepers, now lies close to ruins. With the clinic old and worn, with no medication in stock, and the rooms housing families of up to ten had roofs rusted and weather beaten.
The community primary school which has eight classrooms for a population of 600 students leaves each class on average having to accomodate 150 children at a time. It also lacks toilet facilities, with the pit toilets collapsed, and the children having to answer the call of nature somewhere within the outside surroundings.
“We have now been left to fend for ourselves,” Isa said.
“Many lepers have left because they felt abandoned. They now beg for alms on the road. Even when a leper is cured of the disease, he cannot lead a completely independent life because of loss of fingers and toes. When relief materials come from charity organisations, some sell their own share to buy drugs or any other immediate needs.”
They now engage in farming, though very awful and difficult given that they cannot have a firm grip of farm tools due to significant disability caused by leprosy to their body parts particularly fingers and legs.
“The only assistance we receive is from well-meaning individuals, missionaries and NGOs, who pay us visits with donations randomly once every blue moon,” he said.
“We can’t go out and beg because of the harassment we receive from the Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB).”
They are not only incapacitated by lack of attention from the government, Isa revealed that his members have also become subjects of arrest by officials of AEPB who often lock them up in a facility in Bwari.
“Once they catch us, they take us to the rehabilitation centre in Bwari and you make us pay bail of N10,000 or above. Because of this, we no longer go out begging because we’re afraid of ending up there.”
Saidu Wakili, a resident of the community also shares his experience- he says they can’t even go to mosques on Fridays without facing some sort of harassment.
Wakili recalls a recent unpleasant experience at the National Mosque.
“Last Friday, I went into the city because our leader Malam Isa sent me to do something for him. Coincidentally, I ended up having to pray at the central mosque,” he narrated.
He said a lady had stopped by with a car and opened the car boot that had large bags full of stuff.
“The lady said she was looking for beggars. But the people from Abuja Environmental Protection Board did not allow it.”
“They warned her sternly that if she starts distributing whatever she has, she has herself to blame for any consequences that follow. And she closed the boot, went back into her car and drove away.”
“In fact, even hanging around after the prayers are completed, the mosque securities will literally be breathing down your neck until you leave, so there is no way for anyone to give you anything,” Wakili said.
He corroborated that this has forced the lepers into farming despite having no fingers, which leaves them with wounds and weak muscles caused by their condition.
“Our hands bleed while we’re farming. We’re already handicapped because of our illness, and we still must spend our days with a hoe and cutlass to put food in our mouths. Most times, we use pieces of cloth to wrap our bleeding hands, else we starve.” Wakili, from the leper community
“Many of us have gone blind from the constant bowing while farming, some have died from the hardship, and this is just a fraction of the hardships we face. Despite all this, we still can’t make enough to fend for ourselves,” he adds.
Ali Salihu Dan Ali, another resident of the colony, interjected when he raised another issue of concern – schooling for their kids, which he strongly felt needed to be addressed.
According to one of the teachers present, he said there were over 600 children enrolled in the Alheri Community Primary School, with only 17 teachers. A majority of the students are from the leper colony, while others are from other neighbouring communities.
At a muster point just after the entrance to the colony is a manual borehole, but rather than improve hygiene in the community, there is the risk that it might lead to the spread of communicable diseases.
During our correspondent’s visit, children and adults drink water with their mouths from the tap, a practice that might transmit disease from any carrier to others.
Speaking on the challenge of electricity at the colony, Isa said the inhabitants had been neglected in this regard, going for over two years without electricity supply before a concerned woman intervened with money from her own pocket and fixed the transformer supplying power. Despite this, now they are dogged with having to settle their electricity bills.
He said, “In the colony, every month we have to go door to door, collecting money to put together and settle the people from the electricity company, or else it will be disconnected. When we’re left in darkness, we see reptiles like snakes every day in this place. We live in fear, especially at night. That is why we are begging the government to help us. We took part in elections but nothing to show that we voted in this place.”
Speaking on the situation in the colony, Dr Josephine Okechukwu, the coordinator of Federal Capital Territory Tuberculosis and Leprosy Control Programme, asked our correspondent to come to the agency’s office next week for its reaction, adding that as a civil servant, she wouldn’t be able to respond on the telephone.
She said, “I cannot talk about the facility on the telephone. You can come to the office next week. I am a civil servant.”
HumAngle also reached out to Abubakar Sani, the SA of Media & Publicity to the FCT minister on the plans for the marginalised lepers, and directed our queries to the Social Development Secretariat, which he said was responsible for the welfare of the women, children and vulnerable groups in Abuja.
Efforts to reach the Social Development Secretariat also proved counterproductive up until the time this story was published.