Monday, February 7, 2011
Riding Muleback to a Forbidden Village: Kalaupapa’s Leper Colony
.....Just before the plunge
It was probably one of the most difficult ventures I’d ever undertaken, riding a mule down a 1700-vertical foot, 26-switchback trail to the formerly forbidden village of Kalaupapa on the Island of Molokai, Hawaii.
Kalaupapa National Historical Park’s mission is to preserve the memories and experiences of the past in order that valuable lessons might be learned from them. Since no roads connect Kalaupapa with the rest of Molokai, the village can be approached only by flying in, hiking, or by mule. Visitors must come with a designated group, so arrangements must be made in advance.
When I was a high school junior, I wrote a report on leprosy, more properly called Hansen’s Disease, and learned about Father Damien. Elevated by the Catholic Church in October, 2009 to Saint Damien of Molokai, he dedicated his life to those who suffered that most terrible disease, leprosy. Since writing my school report, Father Damien and the leper colony has held great fascination for me.
The early days of the colony were bleak. In 1863 leprosy had spread to epidemic proportions, and in 1865 King Kamehameha V signed into law the Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy, which authorized isolating persons with the disease. The site chosen was the Kalaupapa Peninsula on the tip of the island of Molokai, Hawaii.
Those condemned were taken by schooner on the open sea to the colony’s shore. Often whole families came as some would not part with a loved one. The large ships couldn’t land in the rough waters, and because the disease was so contagious, the crew refused to take them to shore on small boats. The result was the crew threw the sick, terrified people into the ocean, followed by their belongings and limited supplies. The strong made it to shore where they found no shelter, no food, no medicine, and no hope of ever leaving.
Father Damien, a Roman Catholic priest originally from Belgium, came along in 1873 with strict orders from his superiors not to touch those he was going to serve. He was to administer to their spiritual needs but to keep his distance. He arrived in a stark land void of all amenities. Except for a small chapel, there were no buildings. The inhabitants lived in rock caves or shelters made of driftwood and leaves. Father Damien settled in under a pandanus tree until he could build a house.
Father Damien’s first project was to build a proper cemetery. Rather than follow the custom of dumping bodies into shallow graves for wild dogs and pigs to root out, he built coffins, obtaining materials from “topside,” the part of Molokai outside the quarantined area, or from Oahu. Each death was celebrated with a requiem Mass, proper funeral ceremonies, and a decent burial. He concentrated on restoring in each leper a sense of worth and dignity.
A skilled carpenter, Father Damien trained people to help construct buildings, adapting tools to fit their physical limitations. They built cottages, a hospital, a school, a rectory, and a home for orphaned children.
Soon after his arrival, Father Damien set aside his fear of contagion to give himself to his people. He no longer avoided touching the afflicted, he became one of them. He wrote to his brother, “This is my work in the world. Sooner or later I shall become a leper, but may it not be until I have exhausted my capabilities for good.” He died of the disease in 1889 at the age of forty-nine.
Leprosy, a chronic infectious disease, still affects 11 million people, 5,000 of whom are in the United States. It is considered a tropical disease and is still common in Africa, Asia and many of the Pacific Islands. Since the mid-1940s, leprosy can be treated and cured. With treatment, patients become non-infectious. Isolation is a thing of the past and most cases are treated on an outpatient basis.
With treatment, residents of Kalaupapa were free to leave, but many were so disfigured that they felt more comfortable living among their own in their peaceful, if isolated, community. A few elderly residents who have chosen to live out their lives on Kalaupapa still remain in the village.
As we approached the village, I wondered what we’d see. Mostly, I wondered if I would live to see it. My mule, Mr. Ed, seemed capable enough, and I knew that mules were sure-footed. Still, they have an irritating habit of swinging wide on switchbacks. The mistake is looking down. Oh, my! The heck with looking like a sissy–I gripped the saddle horn for dear life.
Our group of 12 finally arrived and met with a tour guide, himself a victim of leprosy. To assure privacy and respect for the remaining residents, visitors are not allowed to freely roam the park. Our delightful guide spent several hours with us, sharing facts about the leper colony, its people, incredible tales of struggle and human suffering, along with stories about courage and love. We ate lunch overlooking sea cliffs, waterfalls, dramatic ocean rock formations and a wild, crashing sea.
We again mounted our rested mules and rode them up the steep three-mile trail–actually easier for the rider than coming down, I found. I’m sure Mr. Ed would not agree. Kalaupapa National Historical Park was a highlight of my life, one I’ll never forget.