KALAUPAPA - Lessons from a Biblical Horror
Sep 2, 2004
|"They were strangers to each other, collected by common calamity, disfigured, mortally sick, banished without sin from home and friends. --- Robert Louis Stevenson
In 1835, the first case of Leprosy was diagnosed in Hawaii. By 1865, numbers of people with the disease had increased, and the King signed into act a law that banished people to this peninsula. People were taken to the east side of the peninsula, where they were left with the other patients, then called "lepers". Although only one of many diseases which decimated the Hawaiian population at that time(the plague, smallpox, cholera, influenza, and pertussis reduced the Hawaiian population from 250,000 in 1778 to 31,000 in 1896), leprosy was a more hideous affliction than the others . It affected the skin, muscle, nerves and bone with weeping, smelly wounds. Leprosy is not easily transmitted to most people, but it is disfiguring and instills fear in those who see it. The Hawaiians seemed to be much more susceptible to the disease, as they were with other diseases.
On this peninsula, life was grotesque, for many.
On the west side of the peninsula, shown in the picture, there was a fishing village, and on the east site was Kalawao, a colder and windswept area where the patients were required to stay. Originally, there were trees, fruit, and the basics to live, but the trees disappeared and Kawalao became a wasteland.
"The Board of Health had put much thought into the settlement's establishment. Geographically, the Kalaupapa peninsula was ideal for enforcing isolation and segregation. Although some efforts were made to accommodate the steady flow of patients, these were far from adequate. Kalawao's first leprosy residents lived on, died on, and were buried in their mats. Authorities expected these poor people, weakened and crippled by their disease, to till the rich soil, raise cattle, and feed themselves."
This place is a testament to man's inhumanity to man when faced with fear of the unknown - the cause of the disease was unknown, the means of transmission of the disease was unknown, and those who acquired the disease were outcasts - they were removed from civilization.
We chose to visit this place.
It is accessible by small airplane, by mule travel, and by walking. Who knows how far is actually is - the distance changes every time they make a new sign! Richard said the first sign showed the height at 9000 feet! The Lonely Planet said, "It is not strenuous - it takes a little more than an hour, and slightly more on the way up. For me, it was strenuous, and it was 1.5 hours down, and 3 hours up. I accepted that the pain I was experiencing was nothing close to the pain of the human beings that were forced to live there, and I accepted my lot.
In 1873, Father Damien arrived to minister to the people on this land, as a three month assignment. Damien brought a stout peasant's heart, a canny realism of his Belgian ancestry, and the splendors of his faith. He could be cantankerous or exuberant, but he was ferocious in the defense of his charges, whom he treated with infinite courtesy and care. This man had many skills, not the least of which was that he had good hands. When he was assigned to the district of Kohala -Hamakua he built 8 chapels with his own hands. Throughout his life, he continued to build with his own hands. With his hands he built churches and coffins, and with his spirit her restored hope and faith to a lawlwss community experiencing the despair of exile.
Father Damien remained in Kalaupapa until he died - from infection after contracting leprosy. According to all information we received, he is the only person to date who contracted the disease and died from the disease, as a consequence of ministering to these unfortunates. Many others have spent years caring for these people, yet they remained disease free.
The trail down was uneventful, for us, aside for jarring pain to my knees, very humid heat, and profound sweating. We saw no other people on our way down. We passed the west side beach, on arrival, and I resisted the urge to jump into the water. We then found out that the west bay has one of the most dangerous undertows on the island, and the sharks love to feed in the bay - porpoises herd fish into the bay, and sharks and all have a good feed. I was happy to remain alive.
A man drove toward us in a bus. Cats appeared out of the bush. The man disembarked the bus with a pail, and fed the cats.
He said, "How did you get here".
He replied, "There are no tours today - the mules are not coming, and the airlines use today for maintenance". -
"And today is my day off".
We talked. We were gentle and accepting. He was willing and honest.
He was banished to the colony in 1955, at the age of 23. His father was there - whom he had not seen since he was a young child. His sisters were there - all but two members of his family were banished to this place. He is loosing sensation in his right toe, he has become diabetic, and he was receiving intravenous antibiotics three times a day for a chest infection. He frequently stopped, just to breathe. But he drove the bus. - only for us, because nobody else came. We waited, but nobody else showed.
His name is Richard Marks.
He took us to the Catholic Church, where the priest, Joseph Hendricks, from Belgium, asked us if we were Catholics - yet. There are 35 remaining patients. Of those, 23 are Catholic, 3 are Mormon, and 9 are Protestant. The Priest was very gentle, he had a wonderful sense of humor -- and he asked about us. He conducts a mass every morning at 6 am. There are pictures in the church hall of patients who lived there, of the colony in the early times, and of Father Damien.
We traveled around, visited memorials to Damien, to the nun(s) who helped him, and fed more cats. We traveled over to the site of the original colony.
• There were good pastures in the past - which became replaced with lawn (which died) during a drought, and now replaced with unusable trees and plants that are not native to the area. The 19 cattle died of starvation.
• Pigs were a good source of food. They are thought to be a scourge on the island.
But, in Kalauapa, the patients fed the pigs so they could be hunted for food.
• There once was a 60 bed hospital for leprosy research, with 15 additional buildings. The patients chose not to admit themselves into the hospital, as they would be cut off from the remainder of the community for 2 years or more. Only 16 patients were treated in the time the hospital was open.
• Leprosy is not easily transmitted. It becomes a disease when you are disabled, fatigued, worn out, or sick.
• People did not die from leprosy - they died from other diseases they acquired.
• Father Damien had defects, but he loved the people he cared for.
On the east side of the island is the bay where patients were left. This bay, on the east, is not frequented by sharks. Because (it is estimated) 50% of Hawaiians were susceptible to the disease (compared with 4% in the world's population), most patients were Hawaiian. The boat crews were, mostly, Hawaiian, and it was difficult for them to leave these patients as they did - in small boats, sometimes towed in small boats by themselves, and sometimes cast into the water.
This is a spectacularly beautiful location which we have seen in Mitchener's Hawaii, in Jurassic Park, Molokai, and in many other movies. There is a phenomenal disconnect and a profound sadness to the environment.
I learned so much from this visit.
There are 35 patients left, all of whom live here by choice. They are aged 60 to 91. The site has been taken over by the Parks service, and people are beginning to focus on the geological development and natural history of the area. In 15 years, the story told by a National Parks warden will be very different than the story we heard today.
Today, Leprosy can be cured through the use of sulfone drugs introduced in the 1940's and other modern treatments. After a few weeks of treatment, patients no longer transmit the disease, and isolation is not usually necessary. In fact, we now know that leprosy is one of the least contagious of the communicable diseases.
The social stigma of leprosy has caused untold pain, because of fear and misinformation. Many patients have been rejected and forgotten, even by family and friends, as if the disease had erased their humanity. The term "leper" is not used today because it cruelly characterizes a person solely on the basis of their disease and implies that they have no identity outside of the disease -- it perpetuates the stigma. For the same reasons, many now use the name "Hansens's Disease" instead of leprosy.
This is not dissimilar to other diseases and other conflicts we face - we want to focus on personalities, and avoid the pain and honesty of having to deal with principles. Fear takes hold and we take the easy way out.
I heard from this man a message he did not speak - there is a history of many, many people both here and throughout this island, arriving on the scene with a solution to the ills brought upon us by history. They discard history as being a mistake, and add one more. It is all about ego and "self will". Acceptance that history is God's work, and that everything is just the way it needs to be for today is enough for me. I will do my part, where I can.
It was said, by Joseph Dutton who worked with Damien and who remained in Molokai for 44 years, "One's Molokai can be anywhere."
In Darlene's words:
"This was a living graveyard -- a reminder of how disease was managed before the advent of antibiotics, and how, even after the advent of antibiotics, the labeling of people continued to appease fear and continued to isolate victims of the disease. I witnessed years of sadness, and what is left now - 35 survivors of war with their disease and with the resulting human cruelty. An old man has been able to find purpose in bringing to a young person like me his truth about the disease of leprosy, the rightousness of many, about ignorance, and about isolation."
"The attitudes toward alcoholism that we experience today, with the rightousness, the ignorance, and the isolation are very similar."
When we thanked Richard for taking us, he replied, "It comes with the job."
In my opinion, the job of being human.
Father Damien—The man and his Era. Margaret R. Bunson. 1997.
I SBN: 0-87973-916-9. This book is an engaging read.