Stories to tell of lepers enduring stigma and ostracism

  • Metro News
  • Monday, 02 Oct 2017

1. Young children smuggled in to stay with their leprosy parents would hide in this concrete water tank at their quarters during morning checks by the British administrators. The law required patients to be separated from their families.

KUCHING: Leprosy may not be a serious health issue in Sarawak today but the historical experience of patients affected by Hansen’s Disease is something that needs to be told.

Among the numerous buildings the 74ha site of Rajah Charles Brooke Memorial (RCBM) Leprosarium lies a small museum, which chronicles a story of survival and struggles of affected individuals who had to endure stigma and ostracism in society.

The Historical Society of RCBM Hospital, founded two years ago, focused on the welfare of residents and those related to the disease, as well as conservation efforts for the old buildings and historical artefacts dating back to 1925 when the leprosarium was set up.

Things are set to become better for the 92-year-old facility after it was recently listed by Sarawak Museum Department to be gazetted as a heritage site, said Historical Society of RCBM Hospital president Angelina Jong.

“Stigma and ostracism is synonymous with those afflicted with Hansen’s Disease, commonly known as leprosy.

Residents at the leprosarium were given training to make handicrafts and other items such as these prosthetic legs.
Residents at the leprosarium were given training to make handicrafts and other items such as these prosthetic legs.

“It is still very strongly instilled within the community and it is felt that public education should be enhanced in creating the awareness of this disease.

“The society’s aspiration is that one day, Hansenites would no longer be discriminated against, and would be welcomed by society once more,” she said during a tour of the facility in Padawan, near here.

Jong lauded the move to gazette RCBM Hospital, once functioned as a leprosarium, as means to preserve history for future generations.

Plans are afoot to turn the facility into an open-air museum make it an integral part of the Padawan tourism belt.

The state government’s move to turn the leprosarium into an open-air museum is lauded by “We are concerned about the preservation of stories of those with Hansen’s Disease who embarked on this journey. It is essential to document their account before they part from this life and take their stories to the grave.

On display at the museum are some of the medical tools to treat patients.
On display at the museum are some of the medical tools to treat patients.

“We also wish to ensure that historical structures and cemeteries are kept in their original forms and preserved. The artefacts will be protected in the best possible conditions,” she said.

Jong said advance medicine had made leprosy curable and the infected person only required outpatient treatment at hospitals.

There are currently six residents at the RCBM Hospital, aged between 60 and 80 years old, who are all fully cured of leprosy.

The first leper colony in Sarawak was set up in 1901 at 5th Mile, Jalan Kuching-Serian. It was relocated to Satang Island in May 1924 but did not last long due to logistical issue. The patients were resettled to the present site on Oct 10, 1925.

“Even though families were separated by law, there were some who braved it all and secretly built houses deep into the jungles just to be close as they can to their love ones. Evidence from their secret lives are stumps from old houses scattered in nearby forests.

“Eventually, those who were cured started leaving the settlement and built their own homes outside. Those without anywhere to go were given plots of land adjacent to the hospital and aided by the Malaysian Leprosy Relief. Association. This rehabilitation village is called Kampung Sinar Baru,” she said.

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