The Petite Cote, the sun-drenched heart of Senegal’s tourist industry, boasts mile-upon-mile of shimmering Atlantic coastline shaded by towering cocoa palms — and the country’s largest former leper colony.
Officially designated as a “social rehabilitation village”, MBalling’s inhabitants wish it could return to being simply a village like any other. Perched on the ocean 80 kilometres (50 miles) south of Dakar, it has its beginnings in a summer day in 1955, when Senegal was still a French colony.
The authorities began grouping leprosy patients there at a time when treatment was in its infancy and they were ostracised because of their deformities and the misplaced fear of contagion.
“I was one of 122 people who spent the first night here, on July 13, 1955,” said Assane Kadam, the village chief who arrived as a toddler with his father, who was suffering from trypanosomiasis, commonly known as the “sleeping sickness”.
“It was a question of separating the sick people from the others,” Kadam told AFP.
In March 1976, a change in the law re-designated leper colonies across Senegal to “villages of social
rehabilitation”. The point was to ensure that they were “no longer internment camps but villages”, places where neighbours could socialise, said Coumba Wade, of Senegal’s social welfare department.
The 1980s brought the discovery of multidrug therapy (MDT), a combination of rifampicin, clofazimine and dapsone that could permanently cure the afflicted.
Healed lepers, known as “the bleached”, were able to marry and have children, and the villages began to grow.
A village like any other
At MBalling dozens of former lepers, often ageing, continue to receive care regularly.
In a tiled room of 20 square metres (200 sq feet), somewhat grandiosely referred to as a “functional rehabilitation and health education centre”, four elderly patients stretch out their aching feet for a nurse to treat.
Later, 15 men and women, some with prosthetic limbs, others with mutilated hands, wait to be seen by a nurse or doctor. “When someone has to go to hospital, everyone clubs together,” says the president of the village’s women’s association.
“The solidarity that there is here, I would not see in any other village,” adds Djiby Sene, dressed in traditional purple boubou robe and small woollen cap.
The father, who moves around on crutches, returned to MBalling after begging on the streets of Dakar for 18 years.
With the help of DAHW, a German organisation which has been fighting leprosy and tuberculosis in Senegal since 1979, Sene bought a cart, a few animals and a tent which he rents out for village ceremonies.
With its shops, school and clinic, MBalling has become a small town where the 300 former patients represent only a minority of the 5,600 inhabitants. Yet the villagers are unable to shake off the stigmatising image of the leper colony.
“It’s a label hung on the backs of the young people in these villages,” said Cisse Mahamath, DAHW’s social programme coordinator.
“What people want is that their homes are called villages like any other,” says Mahamath, who has been campaigning for a decade for an end to the status of “social rehabilitation village”.
The repeal of the 1976 Act is “expected”, the social welfare department says. Meanwhile Senegal has nine social rehabilitation villages of more than 10,000 inhabitants.
DAHW and former patients’ groups hope that soon they will simply be called “villages”.
By Pauline Froissart for AFP | Published January 23, 2014