Elderly tourists conquer social symptoms of leprosy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 October, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 October, 2001, 12:00am

With their straw hats and oversized sunglasses, they looked like any other rural tour group as they posed for a photo in the city.

But most of the 23 senior citizens who toured Guangzhou last Thursday had never been to the provincial capital - less than an hour's drive from their communal home in Beixing township. All are former leprosy patients long cured of the disease yet forever marked by its scars.

Others had not seen the city for 50 years or more. Some had been sent to Guangzhou in recent years for medical treatment.

'The few of us who have been to Guangzhou have never had time to have fun here,' said 71-year-old Yu Raofen. But for fingers worn down to the knuckles, there is little to set Mr Yu apart from any other spry senior citizen looking years younger than his age.

Indeed, Mr Yu's small stature, coupled with immense confidence and poise, remind one of Deng Xiaoping. His outgoing personality has made Mr Yu his community's spokesman.

The community of former leprosy patients is one of 63 spread across Guangdong. Together, these so-called leper villages are home to about 3,900 people.

More than 50,000 people in Guangdong have had leprosy. Most have been reintegrated into society as their disease was diagnosed and cured early enough to prevent disfigurement.

But for Mr Yu and others who contracted leprosy decades ago, when ignorance about the disease was widespread and medical treatment unavailable, help came too late.

Disfigured and ostracised by society and even their own families, they have been confined to rural communities such as Beixing for most of their lives. That most of those living in Beixing had never been to nearby Guangzhou is a measure of their abandonment.

Mr Yu and his fellow villagers' day trip to the city was organised by Stephen Zaborowski, a Guangzhou-based American expatriate, and funded by a social club affiliated with the Australian Consulate-General in Guangzhou. Handa, a local organisation dedicated to the rehabilitation and support of former leprosy patients, and the Huiling School for handicapped and autistic youths provided transport.

'All they asked for was to ride the subway and see the city's tallest building,' Mr Zaborowski said.

Thanks to him, the group did both those things. Mr Zaborowski, acting as chaperone, bravely pushed past security guards who tried to prevent the group from visiting an observation deck in the Citic Tower, Guangzhou's tallest building. The villagers also enjoyed lunch at a restaurant, visited Ersha Island and toured the shopping malls.

Citic Tower aside, public reaction to the group was mostly civil and courteous. Staff at the Bali Asia Restaurant, in Tiyu Road West, seated and served the unexpected party without batting an eye. Guangzhou Metro staff cleared a path for the group as they took their first subway ride.

'Guangzhou is very pretty. There are so many things to see,' Shi Shenhao, 66, said of a city not widely known for its beauty. It was Mr Shi's first time to Guangzhou. Yu Hualin, 60, also visiting the city for the first time, navigated three fast-moving escalators despite having only one leg.

Unfortunately, not everyone from the Beixing community was able to make the trip. Some are too old and infirm.

Others, such as Wei Zhudi, a spry 56-year-old who contracted leprosy when she was 12 and has never been to Guangzhou, had simpler reasons for not joining the tour.

'I can't go,' Ms Wei said before the group set off on its adventure. 'I get car sick.'