A Visit to Chacachacare
She was very light skinned for a Caribe native. At the time my skin was darker than hers because I didn’t stay out of the sun. I was sun-tanned. Her name I no longer remember, but she’s unforgettable after all these years. I met her in 1967 when our Peace Corps group went by ferry to Chacachacare from the Port of Spain in Trinidad. At that time Chacachacare was a leper colony. This tiny island between Trinidad and Venezuela had once been a cotton plantation and a whaling station, but now it was the isolated home run by Dominican nuns for a small population of lepers most of whom were hospital patients.
The visit was to prepare us for dealing with lepers since we were headed to our posts in Niger, West Africa, where lepers were not uncommon. I didn’t know how I felt about this visit. I was only familiar with lepers through pages of novels and movies like Ben Hur. In those contexts you were always made to feel horror or at least dread of seeing the ravages of the disease: the deformities and the grotesque skin growths, and, of course, the fear that it was contagious. The Peace Corps had assured us from the beginning that any disease we contracted could be treated. Still, the prospect of getting leprosy was worrisome. I had to trust the Peace Corps because our country director, after all, was a physician from Barbados, a graduate of Howard University.
I was both fascinated by the prospect of seeing a leper and frightened. If it had been now I should have been outraged that these poor people were being exploited by the United States Peace Corps, but the political correctness of anti-exploitation had yet to come.
It was a beautiful Caribbean day with a blue, blue sky reflected in the ocean water, turning it azure, too. There wasn’t much chatter among volunteers during the hour trip to the island, but as we tied up to the jetty, the white, low-roofed hospital of many open windows gleamed in the sunlight, and made me feel welcomed. It was within short walking distance.
Our director met with hospital administrators and then we followed them through double doors into a large sunny room. It was the ward of those close to death. I was very aware of the knot in my stomach and purposefully unfocused my eyes in order not to see anything I’d have nightmares about later. The doctor in charge explained that these twenty or so patients were just receiving palliative care; that all knew they were going to die, and that dying was a good thing: they would no longer suffer. He called out to some with a greeting and received no reply, not even the wave of an arm. All of them were covered with gauze and bandages to one degree or another, and when he pointed to a body lying in a bed at our feet, he told us that the lady was only twenty-some years in age but looked to be eighty. A kind of collective gasp went up from our group, and he explained that that was one of the lesser cruelties of the disease: looking far-older than you really were. Fortunately only this woman’s head shown, but the white sheet pulled over her body still revealed a tiny, shriveled form. A few of the other patients were obviously missing toes and fingers since their sheets didn’t cover those parts, but fortunately most of the horrifying effects of the disease had been hidden from us. Although I was glad not to see these effects I wondered how we were being prepared to encounter leprosy in the field which wouldn’t be covered, hidden from view.
I felt very sad for these people and wondered how they happened to be so unlucky. I wanted answers to many unformulated questions. My compassion demanded it, and then the opportunity came. We were told that beyond the hospital were little houses, bungalows, in which patients less affected by the disease were living. We were encouraged to visit them, not to satisfy our curiosity, but to allow them to have the pleasure of a visitor, someone from the outside. They were expecting us.
With trepidation I walked up a path away from the hospital toward a row of bungalows situated at the bottom of a hill. I was the only one who set out. I walked under the shade of palm trees and other tropical vegetation until I noticed a small woman standing in the shadow of her porch. Fortunately since the inhabitants of Trinidad spoke English, I called out to her. She echoed my hello, and I stopped in front of her door. There were no screens on her little blue house so we talked about the usual things: the weather, who I was, where I had come from, and why was I there. From six feet away I couldn’t see that she was a leper. There were no outward symptoms except her skin was lighter than I expected. However, I was acutely uncomfortable about being a kind of voyeur. I really wanted to convey to this woman that I was empathetically interested in her. Thank God she got the message for within minutes of my greeting her, she invited me into her house.
There was only a wooden couch-cum-bench and a chair in her parlor, and she sat on the chair across from me, a figure about my size, with graying black hair, wearing a print cotton dress. The interior of her house was also painted blue, a darker blue, but maybe that was due to the shady interior. A big glassless window looked out to the jetty where I could see our ferryboat. The house was not a home as I knew one, but it was Spartan and spotlessly clean! I was very relieved that she didn’t offer me anything to eat or drink because I would have felt obliged to accept it. When I thought about it later I realized that the nuns had probably told the residents not to touch us or offer food.
While we were getting to know one another through very polite and conventional queries, I noticed two other volunteers, as a pair, walking by. I felt a little jealous. I wanted to be the only volunteer who had been brave enough to go out into the village. It turned out, however, that they never engaged anyone in conversation so I was the only person to have a complete experience, and what an experience it was.
Slowly our conversation came around to her life. She told me that as a young girl she began to get extra thicknesses of skin on her face and limbs. Her mother tried various remedies from the rainforest and from several native practitioners, but nothing stopped these growths from multiplying. Her mother knew that it was leprosy, and she, too, gradually realized that it was leprosy, a progressive disease for which there was no cure. She had seen lepers in her village, shunned by their families, begging for food, and she became frightened. I did not prompt this woman. She was telling me her story, and she looked extremely sad. It was all I could do to keep from crying, but I realized this woman didn’t want my tears, she wanted to be heard.
“One day,” she said, “my mother packed a bag with my clothes and some photographs, and took me to the ferry for Chacachacare. She bought my one-way fare and watched while I boarded. She stood there and waved as the ferry moved away. I knew I was going to the leper colony. What else was there to do? My mother couldn’t take care of me anymore, and I would become a burden on my family.”
I had to gulp back my emotions, and we both sat there in silence for a while. Finally I asked if her family ever came to visit. “No,” she said, “why should we feel such pain. I have to stay here forever, and they have their own lives. They do send me baskets of fruit and vegetables.”
I had so many other questions to ask her. I wanted to plum her thoughts, to experience her deepest emotions, but I saw my colleagues walking back to the ferry. I gestured toward them, and explained that I had to go. I thanked her for telling me her story, and left her house, turning once to wave back at her, brushing the tears from my eyes. I said nothing all the way back to Port of Spain. That was fifty years ago.
When I finally got to my post in Niger, my language tutor for Kanuri, the local dialect, was a leper. His name was Ousman. But that’s another story.
Abby Ripley is a seventy-six year old and has had a very rich and varied life. She grew up on a ranch on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana and has spent time as a Peace Corps volunteer, a travel agent, a life insurance field agent, an editor, a fine art photographer and exhibitor, a painter, and now a writer/poet. She crusades on behalf of African people who suffer from tungiasis. She was recently named a poetry finalist by Adelaide Literary Magazine.