Monday, August 12, 2013

History of the Leper Colony on Makogai

We spent a few days wandering through the skeletal remains of the leprosarium buildings on Makogai Island, Fiji, but had no access to research material. Our questions remained unanswered until we reached Ovalau yesterday and connected to the Internet. I used information from the following articles for a brief overview:

1/ The Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary - MAKOGAI 100 YEARS – AN OASIS OF COURAGE AND HOPE IN FIJI

2/ A Short History of Leprosy Control in Fiji - Ms. Mere Vakawaletabua and Dr. Iobi Batio, 2008

Leprosy may have existed on Fiji prior to European and Asian arrivals. There were graves whose stones were said to be contagious and stories of attempts to cure lepers by suspending them in the smoke over a fire made from Sinu gaga, a poisonous tree. Lepers were clubbed to death and in one horrific case, burnt for entertainment by a chief on Kia Island.

Treating a patient at Makogai
When Fiji became a British colony, clubbing was banned. With an increasing awareness of the contagious nature of leprosy, the Leper Ordinance Act of 1899 was passed to prohibit lepers from handling food, medicines and tobacco, using public transport, bathing in communal pools and lodging in public houses. Non-Fijians caught disobeying the act were sent to Walu Bay on Vanua Levu and Fijians were banned to the outskirts of their villages.

As the number of infected cases grew, the Walu Bay facility was closed and in 1906, the patients were moved to Beqa Island.The island's limited size and it's proximity to Suva which generated fear among travelers, drove the the government to select Makogai as the site for a new facility in 1908. However, it proved difficult to recruit health workers to send to Makogai and an appeal was made to the Catholic church to send caring nuns.

In September 1911, four sisters from "The Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary", two from France and two Fijian, arrived with Dr. Hall, the Bishop in charge, to prepare for the arrival of the lepers on Makogai. The first twenty lepers landed in November, 1911.

A few pictures follow from when the colony on Makogai was active.

Overview of leprosarium village site from road to the staff village.

Overview of main patient village. 

Interior of woman's ward.
Makogai was an ideal island with lots of level ground for building and fertile land for growing crops and raising cattle. Separate villages were built for the Fijians, Indians and other Pacific Islanders, and the staff. There were two churches, a Catholic and Wesleyan, a mosque, and probably a Hindu temple as well. The patients lived in dorms, with Women segregated from men. Indentured Indian workers were brought to the island to do much of the farming.

Chris looks over the remains of a building that may have been a laundry/sterilization facility

The villages appear to each have had several water sources - wells and cisterns. This well is about 4 meters wide and capped in concrete.

The locks still look functional in these doors leading into a dormitory in what was probably the Indian patient's village.

We were struck by the quality of civil engineering throughout the settlements. The road could easily have been restored to use, being well built and drained by dozens of still functioning culverts.

The physically able were encouraged to work in the fields, assist in building, cooking, sewing and other daily chores.  Physical activities and recreation were promoted including inter-village sports and arts and crafts. Children attended school and there were girl guides and boy scouts. There was even an open air movie theater. These varied activities were introduced to help overcome the sense of hopelessness that can occur when people are exiled from their homes and families. All in all it was a very positive community. The sisters attended to the physical as well as the spiritual needs of their patients.

Movie theater projection building today

Buildings near the old wharf

Buildings in the main village. Some of these can be seen in the village overview photo shown above, which was taken from the right side of this picture and up the hill.

One gets a brief but illuminating look into this world from a newspaper article written by Frank Exon, who went to Makogai in the 1930's to establish a wireless (radio communications) station:

"Whatever one did, whenever one went, there seemed to be always a watchful sister handy with a disinfectant bottle of iodine or bowl of disinfectant. It would be difficult to over-praise these sisters. Whatever their duties - and they are many and varied - they are always serene, practical, and capable. Between them they run the electric lighting plant, the refrigerators for foodstuffs and the necessary serums, the moving picture equipment, and now the wireless plant...Although they work from daylight till dark they apparently never grumble."

Makogai became a very successful leprosarium and soon patients were arriving from all over the Pacific - countries such as the Solomons, Gilbert and Ellice Islands, Cook Islands, Samoa, and Tonga. By 1947, there were 675 lepers on Makogai. At the beginning, the only treatment offered was Chaulmoogra Oil, used to dress wounds or as an intra-dermal injection. It was not a cure, but treated the symptoms. In 1948, dapsone, a sulpha drug and a cure for leprosy, was discovered and patients were finally effectively treated and released.

The following photos were taken in the graveyard, which  is large, stretching for several acres up the hillside past a wall marking the boundary of the main village. It houses more than 1000 graves, most unidentified.

One of the founding French sisters - she ran the facility for 34 years from its inception.

Grave of Maria Filomena - a Fijian sister who worked from the colony's inception and lived there as a patient and worker for 30 years after she contracted the leprosy.

Early graves were marked by stone piles and some by upended bottles.

This bottle dates its bottle grave to around 1918.

Concrete appears to have come into use around 1940 and these mostly unidentified graves pack the lower hillside.

One of the last graves from 1969, the year in which the colony was disbanded.
According to the statistics register kept at Makogai, 4,185 patients landed there, 2,343 returned to full health, 1,241 died and were buried there, 518 were repatriated, and 83 transferred to the P. J. Twomey hospital in Suva when the Makogai leprosarium was closed in 1969.

While a visit to the ruins of the leprosarium is sobering, it is hard to remain somber when you meet the current inhabitants of the island. These children are carrying coconuts back to their homes.


youssof el hallal said...

it's good to read : l'impure de Guys des Cars in french !! it's a beautiful roman in parallel to your history !! thanks for all

SALUD SECTOR 13 said...

En verdad tan bello libro describe e fielmente lo que se conoce de Makogai, novela romántica - histórica llena de esperanza y fe. Se las recomiendo amiamente