Thursday, April 21

welcome to rehab

april 21, 2005

Driving across Liberia is dangerous we're told - the road snakes through lush rainforest greenery from oceanfront Monrovia to the river that marks the border of Guinea about 200 miles north.

It skirts around Firestone's million acres of rubber trees - the world's largest rubber plantation. Through more than 10 UN military checkpoints, complete with sandbags and haphazardly ambitious razor wire art. Ak-47's swing almost carelessly at soldiers' sides as they stare blankly at our white Land Rover.

Through displaced persons camps, where tens of thousands squat in mud huts built on top of each other, haphazardly roofed with unraveling multicolored tarps fending off fierce sun and penetrating rains. Through villages that sing of intense poverty, where the smoke from cooking fires seems listless and lost, enveloped in oppressive humidity.

Past the nation's children. Its future running naked and clothed, waving and staring and screaming and silent. Its future idly silhouetted in the openings of huts - shadows in the open windows. A future beaming with the freshness and freedom of short-lived optimism, of innocent bliss.

The road turns from bad to awful and our military escort - a UN vehicle carrying 8 Bangladeshi soldiers sporting automatics leads us quickly and deftly through potholes leading to China.


When I was first asked to visit Liberia's leper colony in Ganta, I nearly fell off my chair.
A rare opportunity for sure - an armed UN military guard was required to travel across the country. I'd flown to Ganta with the medical team by helicopter a month ago, but was excited to see Liberia by land.

The escort had been arranged - six of us from the Mercy Ship Anastasis would shuttle hospital beds, syringes and pharmaceuticals to the sleepy town hospital - then visit the leper colony and buy crafts to sell on the ship.

It took little thinking to soon realize I knew next to nothing about leprosy. Okay, I remembered Bible stories of beggars yelling unclean! unclean! so as not to pass along their terrible disease to passing Samaritans. And tasteless high school jokes about arms and legs falling off like the leper in the bath named Stu or the leper hockey game that had to be stopped after the opening face off. Come to think about it, didn't Che Guevera drive circles around South America to work with lepers? But really, what was leprosy, and more importantly, wasn't it contagious?

After some internet research I felt stupid and naïve. Because everyone should know that leprosy isn't contagious if it's being treated. And curable. That's the wonderful thing about the information age. An hour of smart googling and you can know more about an obscure topic than just about everyone else you know. You can learn that leprosy isn't the flesh-eating disease behind google's staggering 22,200 pages of leper jokes. That in no way is it like that but instead attacks nerve endings and that through the lack of pain, lepers injure their extremities, causing damage and deformity. You can learn that the "l" word is hated and that most prefer "hansen's disease" after the Norweigan Armauer Hansen who first discovered the leprosy germ under a microsope in 1873.


It was Sister Gaudi, an Italian nun running things there for some years, that led us into Rehab - the official name of the colony.

Rehab is such a rich place. The patients unique and colorful and effusive. They enjoyed the attention of a photographer and in a short time, I learned they deserve much more ink than this space or a short visit could provide. I've scheduled a trip back in three weeks to stay with them inside the colony and hopefully give their stories justice.

In the meantime, I've published a photo gallery with 34 images on the site, titled First Look Rehab. Please visit and get a preview of some very special people.

For more information on leprosy, check out - they feature my photograph of "Papa James" from Ganta on their homepage.


leova (↑) said...

this seriuos photoblog...thanks for your job!

6:18 AM  
Sidney said...

Thanks for sharing and opening our eyes to the suffering of those people in Liberia.

8:57 AM  
odilialiuzzi said...



10:37 AM  
Lindsey said...

Thank you for sharing about your experiences. I ran across this via RELEVANT magazine and you're doing a great thing. Yes, doctors are healing and that is amazing, but you are transmitting these stories to the world. Inspiring.

8:36 PM  
Anonymous said...

unbelievable stuff... thanks for the courage.

6:56 PM  
Dennis Janson said...

Dear Scott, my wife Faye and I are missionaries in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Your story humbles us and shows us our flaws. Here we are doing His work in Paradise and complain when it gets alittle too hot and dusty. Keep up the good work and enjoy each smile as that is God smiling back at you through His children.

Dennis & Faye Janson

1:53 PM  
msa showcase said...


7:45 PM  
Ron said...

Do you have any recent knowledge of the village focused on Leprosy in southern Liberia called "New Hope Town"? I taught school there for a year in 1970. Maybe it's gone by now. I had wonderful memories there

Ron Backman

4:37 AM  

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