The leper colony

One day I experienced something that I often tell people about. Not that I expect such things can be handed on as it were to anyone else. I only learn things vicariously, by doing them. Why should I expect others to pick them up simply by being told? But I reckon it is an interesting tale, so I will go ahead and tell it anyway.

It started when we were planning to go over to this other station for a weekend. I had a Long Wheelbase Landrover. This is a four wheel drive vehicle, a minority machine in the U.S.A. admittedly, but the type of conveyance that made Britain great in the colonies and the tropics. Every New Zealander and Australian knows what a Landrover is. There is only one place in the world where it has become a cult vehicle, and it is a fitting location – the highlands of Malaysia. This outpost of colonialism has towns completely populated by Landrovers. I have a photo of me standing in a street full of parked Landrovers. No other vehicle. But I digress.

Well, we loaded up about twenty gallons of diesel oil to take over with us, because that was what the lady on the mission station had asked for. Then we drove over and got there later that afternoon. Unloaded everything, and took the fuel over to this pumphouse. Then this lovely chatty Irish lady took us down to the village and introduced us to some people. Only it wasn’t a village. It was a leper colony.

That’s right. A leper colony. A place where the rejects of poverty stricken Africa, with pieces of their anatomy missing, go and live. So understand the scene. These are people who can’t even fit into the normal filth and dust of a third world African township. They are shut out from even that. Living in a leper colony in Africa is the bottom of the pile. There is nowhere lower to go. In the whole world.

This lovely lady breaks into their language for a while. Don’t underestimate even this. The language was a tonal one. Us English speakers have a very hard time learning tonal languages like Chinese, and the West African tongues. She had spent years training herself on this lingo so she could go talk with the lepers. Not so that she could arrange foreign exchange transfers, or listen to them chat through financial deals in front of her thinking she couldn’t understand them. Oh no, she learnt it because it was proof of her commitment to them in particular. Sounds awfully serious, this little point, but we are talking years of effort. To speak with lepers.

Well, she told them the following, and then explained it all to me. In the middle of their compound of 300 people stood a solitary water tap. The water out of this tap came from a tower. The water tower was replenished by a pump. The pump was fueled with diesel. Prior to our coming, the diesel had run out a long time ago, so no water in the tower, and therefore one dry tap. But now, the water would run, and the lepers would not have to walk down to the river and bring it back on bowls on their heads. For a while anyway.

Then these wretched souls poured out of their huts, smiling and laughing through their missing lips, clapping despite their absent digits, and dancing without their long gone toes. Circling around, they happily chanted away, seemingly without a care in the world now that their single water tap would work again. For a while.

And I had nothing to say.