The valley of hope

 

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Twenty-five minutes from the centre of Kuala Lumpur, beneath a backdrop of jungled hills, there lies a lush green valley with running streams. The area in which the following photographs were taken is called The Valley of Hope. In Sungai Buloh, it is known for its plant nurseries which brim with colorful and scented orchids, orange and magenta bougainvilleas, tropical Southeast Asian herbs, a diversity of palms and clipped topiaries. These nurseries were started by patients in what was formerly the second largest leprosy colony in the British Commonwealth. Above the main stretch of road sit avenues of identical chalets displaying a patina that comes with age in a humid climate. They have been stamped with individual touches, either cultural or religious decorative elements or the pragmatic addition of a carport or lean-to. Along the patchwork roads of repairs and potholes lie the skeletons of decaying chalets slowly collapsing into rampant tropical growth.

The 1926 Leprosy Act restricted leprosy patients from associating with the rest of society. At the time, it was an incurable disease and thought to be highly contagious with its patients enduring the cruel disfigurements of faces and limbs. During the 1920s, many leprosy patients were isolated at a leprosarium in Setapak, Kuala Lumpur. Dr. E. A.O. Travers, who was working as a high-ranking health official at Setapak, saw the dreadful conditions the patients were living in and made a recommendation to the British government in Malaya that a fully-equipped and more humane leprosarium be built. Consequently, the Sungai Buloh Settlement was officially opened in 1930 and at its highpoint housed almost 2,000 patients.  The Valley of Hope was a pioneering project based on segregating leprosy patients in a self-supporting community following the principles of a garden city[1]. The people that lived there were from all over the country, from different races and religions and the valley included four churches, a Hindu and a Buddhist temple and Muslim surau. Initially the settlement was more of a prison. Patients were referred to as inmates and the boundaries were demarcated by barbed wire fences that acted as a grim deterr­ent to anyone thinking of escaping.

 

“But as the years went by, the patients in the settlement built lives of their own, learning to thrive in quarantine. New treatments were also developed to combat the scourge of leprosy. Still, it was hard to find acceptance outside the confines of the community”[2]

 

Patients built long-lasting relationships with fellow residents, often stronger than with their families and friends on the outside from which they had been forcibly separated.

 

“They even practiced ways of life frowned upon by the state: they smoked opium, manufactured Chinese wine at night and enjoyed social gambling”[3]

 

Romances bloomed between patients and there were marriages. Because leprosy was still not fully understood, when babies were born they would be taken away soon after birth.

The mothers were not allowed to breastfeed them and would only be permitted to see them once a week, with some babies even being adopted out.

When cures for leprosy emerged in the 1970s, the fences were taken down and many of the patients chose to leave. Today, around 200 former patients continue to live in the settlement with the remaining houses empty or occupied by migrant workers.

A substantial area has been developed into a general hospital, university campus and student accommodation. In April 2011, 78 hectares of the 230 hectare leprosy settlement was officially declared a national heritage site with plans for a future leprosy museum.

Walking through The Valley of Hope today, the signs of pain and suffering are no longer evident in the landscape. From learning of its history and feeling for the lives of the former patients, I am left with wonder at the resilience of the human spirit to carry on and make the most out of a seemingly hopeless situation.

 

Bibliography

Loh. Kah Seng. The meaning behind “the valley of hope” http://www.academia.edu/11787025/The_meanings_behind_the_Valley_of_Hope

retrieved March 31, 2017 p2

Toh, Terence. The Valley of Hope

http://poskod.my/features/the-valley-of-hope

retrieve 31 March 2017

Tan, Ean Nee & Joshua Wong. The Way Home: The Isolated Emotional World of Former Leprosy Patients and their Descendants http://www.thewayhome.my/History.html

retrieved March 31, 2017

[1] The garden city movement is a method of urban planning that was initiated in 1898 by Sir Ebenezer Howard in the United Kingdom. Garden cities were intended to be planned, self-contained communities surrounded by “greenbelts“, containing proportionate areas of residences, industry, and agriculture.

 

[2] Toh, Terence. The Valley of Hope http://poskod.my/features/the-valley-of-hope/

retrieve 31 March 2017

 

[3] Kah Seng Loh. The meaning behind “the valley of hope” http://www.academia.edu/11787025/The_meanings_behind_the_Valley_of_Hope

retrieved March 31, 2017 p2

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