The wisdom we gain from leprosy history can make us better human beings.
I confess that the title, “Leprosy/Hansen’s Disease History as Heritage of Humanity” initially struck me as overreaching itself; in the end, however, it came to make complete sense.
In the decades I have been involved with Sasakawa Memorial Health Foundation (SMHF), our work in leprosy has evolved from disease control through elimination of leprosy as a public health problem to identification of the people affected as the main actors in health and social issues of leprosy and dawning recognition of leprosy history’s value.
Initially, the perception of this history was of a negative history. But if we describe it as negative history, then we must address the question of who made it negative. The answer points back to each of us.
Triggering similar questions is the title of a new publication about leprosy from the National Historical Commission of the Philippines. Hidden Lives: Concealed Narratives causes one to ask: Who has hidden them? Who has concealed them? Once again, it is difficult to exclude ourselves from the answers.
As we consider these questions, we come to see the value in leprosy history. It makes us stop and think, and dwell on what it means to live; it contains elements that, in the words of film director Hayao Miyazaki, challenge us not to live life carelessly or inattentively.*
This was the significance of the symposium. It drew participants from diverse backgrounds — academics, museum curators, government officials, people who have personally experienced leprosy — whose presence was an acknowledgment that the history of leprosy transcends a single disease. It encompasses diverse aspects of human existence that are woven into the fabric of every nation.
At a time when mementoes and memories of leprosy are fast vanishing, it was inspiring to hear of government initiatives taking shape to preserve leprosy history, to see the “second generation” actively involved in securing the legacies of their parents and know of academics who have discovered rich themes in leprosy.
Throughout history, people with leprosy have suffered, but they have also struggled to survive the darkness into which they were thrust. In the unforgettable words of Kaijin Akashi, “Unless I illuminate myself like a deep sea fish, nowhere would I find even a glimmer of light.”
As the light cast by this history grows stronger, our eyes are adjusting to a new way of looking at leprosy and ourselves. The wisdom we acquire can make us better human beings. Taking my leave of SMHF, I do so in the knowledge that the world is beginning to discover and share what the history of leprosy has to offer.
Kay Yamaguchi is former advisor to Sasakawa Memorial Health Foundation. She retired at the end of March 2016.
* See Issue #78, p.8.