Continued stigma

A place to call home: Naung Kan leprosy colony

Located just outside of Kengtung, a former trade crossroads between China and Siam, Naung Kan leprosy colony in Myanmar provides a stable and understanding environment to sufferers of one of the world’s most stigmatised diseases

Brennan O'Connor
October 28, 2015

The long-term residents of Naung Kan leprosy colony have surprisingly similar stories. After contracting leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, many were forced to leave their mountain villages in the heartlands of the Golden Triangle. They wandered the borderlands between Myanmar and China for years until arriving at the colony, located about eight kilometres from Kengtung in eastern Shan State.

Naung Kan, leprosy, myanmar
Higher power: a religious service is conducted in an ethnic Akeu village, which converted to Catholicism, near Naung Kan leprosy colony. Photo: Brennan O’Connor

Naung Kan, leprosy, myanmar
Earth mothers: residents of the colony go to work on the vegetable farm. Photo: Brennan O’Connor

Although they are all now cured of leprosy, when they venture outside of the colony’s gates they still face discrimination.

Leprosy is one of the world’s oldest and most stigmatised diseases. It is also one of the most misunderstood. Many still think it’s highly infectious, and this is especially true in Myanmar even though it is now believed that more than 95% of people are immune to Mycobacterium leprae, the germ that causes it. The disease damages nerves in the skin, which leads to a loss of feeling that can result in unnoticed wounds festering and posing major health risks. The disease is often associated with poverty and, according to the World Health Organisation, one of the biggest obstacles to the treatment of leprosy is the “age-old stigma” still associated with the disease.

Despite years of suffering, the Naung Kan residents retain a strong sense of self, according to Sister Therese, one of a handful of Catholic nuns that manage the colony. “Culturally, they are already strong,” she said.

Naung Kan, leprosy, myanmar
Screen time: Shwe Up, an ethnic Lahu, watches an Akha singer on her television in her room. She never contracted leprosy but is deaf and mute. Photo: Brennan O’Connor

Naung Kan, leprosy, myanmar
Sweet dreams: Ei Awy pets her cat. An ethnic Akha woman from China in her late 60s, her older brother brought her to Naung Kan as a child. It took them three days travelling on foot to reach the colony. Photo: Brennan O’Connor

Naung Kan, leprosy, myanmar
One way or another: Na Noon, left, and Lunn Tan, right, both ethnic Lahu, moved to the colony after contracting leprosy many years ago. Photo: Brennan O’Connor

And she would know; Therese and the majority of the nuns are from the same ethnic minority groups as the colony’s residents.

With thousands cured since its inception in 1934, Naung Kan is now home to 55 leprosy survivors. Most live with their families, bringing the total population to about 300. The guiding principle at Naung Kan, according to Therese, is that residents must “do things for themselves”.

Naung Kan, leprosy, myanmar
The gathering: a prayer session in the colony’s cemetery before the start of the All Saints’ Day holiday. Photo: Brennan O’Connor
Naung Kan, leprosy, myanmar
Shady business: a young resident of Naung Kan takes a rest after helping clear leaves and branches from the cemetery. Photo: Brennan O’Connor

And they certainly do. Healthy residents wake up early each day to tend livestock, work in one of the colony’s three organic vegetable gardens or cut bamboo that will be used in construction. Elderly residents simply do what they can, with many cooking and showering by themselves and keeping their spaces clean.

Leprosy resulted in these people temporarily losing their place in the world. At Naung Kan, living alongside others like themselves, they have finally found a place they can call home.

Read more articles