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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

AMBASSADOR’S JOURNAL: Journeys to Brazil, Colombia and Indonesia

COLOMBIA (December 21-23)

Several years ago I met Jaime Molina Garzon, the impressive founder of Corsohansen, an NGO of people affected by leprosy in Colombia. Ever since, I had wanted to visit the town of Agua de Dios, where Corsohansen is based.

Agua de Dios is about 110 kilometers from the capital Bogota. It means “water of God” as it was believed that nearby thermal springs were an effective cure for skin complaints. A small group of people with leprosy had been exiled there.

Like many countries, Colombia introduced legislation at some point in its history to isolate people with leprosy. In 1870, the government bought the land at Agua de Dios that people affected by the disease were already living on, creating a colony there. An infrastructure gradually built up—including a hospital that opened in 1880 and three separate sanatoriums whose residents today are all elderly.

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On the road to Agua de Dios: the Bridge of Sighs

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The museum at the Corsohansen office

On the road to Agua de Dios is a bridge that spans the Bogota River. Built in 1872, it became known as the Bridge of Sighs. For people sent to the colony, crossing this bridge meant leaving the outside world and loved ones behind forever. Once in Agua de Dios, they lost their rights as Colombian citizens and were issued with identity cards that were valid there and nowhere else.

The law requiring the isolation of leprosy patients wasn’t abolished until 1961. Two years later, the town became a municipality. Today it has a population of around 13,000, the majority of whom are people affected by leprosy or their descendants.

There are no less than four separate museums detailing different aspects of its history. One of these is in the well-run offices of Corsohansen. Another is devoted to Luis Antonio Calvo, a famous Colombian composer who was diagnosed with leprosy at the age of 34 and spent the rest of his life in Agua de Dios. The third is the municipal leprosy museum, situated in one of the town’s sanatoriums. The fourth, located in a convent, is the Father Louis Variara Museum, which recognizes the work of this Italian priest who did so much for the people of Agua de Dios and was beatified by the Catholic Church in 2002.

The town faces challenges—economically, it lags behind other areas and there is stigma attached to being from Agua de Dios. Jorge Humberto Garcés Betancur, its young mayor, is serving his second term. With parents who are affected by leprosy, he is part of Agua de Dios’s past and also part of its future. Like Culion in the Philippines, Agua de Dios deserves to be recognized as a place transformed from a symbol of despair to one with hopes and dreams. It has a history from which the whole world can learn.