Isam Bala moved to the colony with his blind wife Na Law. (Photo: Brennan O’Connor)|At the end of a two-day Catholic retreat for male residents of the colony
they gather for prayers in the cemetery. (Photo: Brennan O’Connor)|Lu Sam Pha
an ethnic Loi
watches fellow residents leave his home after a prayer session during an all-male Catholic retreat. (Photo: Brennan O’Connor)|Shwe Up (right) and other residents go to work in the colony’s vegetable farm. She never contracted leprosy but is deaf and mute. As she can’t speak
little is known about her life before arriving at the colony ten years ago. (Photo: Brennan O’Connor)|Ethnic Akeu men (also called Aki or Akui) kill a pig during a Catholic celebration in their village near the Naung Kan Leprosy Colony. (Photo: Brennan O’Connor)|Residents gather for prayers in the colony’s cemetery a week before All Saint’s Day holiday. (Photo: Brennan O’Connor) |Na Noon (left) and Lunn Tan (right)
both ethnic Lahu
moved to the colony for treatment decades ago. After being cured
they stayed on. (Photo: Brennan O’Connor)
|Ei Awy pets a cat. An ethnic Akha woman from China in her sixties
Ei Awy moved to the colony after developing leprosy as a child. (Photo: Brennan O’Connor)|A boy minds the family cow at the colony. Many of the relatives of former patients live together at Naung Kan. (Photo: Brennan O’Connor)
|One of the Catholic nuns running the colony surveys land farmed by former patients. After they were cured they settled nearby. (Photo: Brennan O’Connor)|Residents of a mixed ethnic village celebrate the one year anniversary of a Catholic shrine near Naung Kan Leprosy Colony. (Photo: Brennan O’Connor)
A young resident takes a break during a fall cleanup of the colony’s cemetery. (Photo: Brennan O’Connor)|Isam Bala returns from collecting his weekly food ration at Naung Kan Leprosy Colony. After he developed leprosy as a teenager about fifty years ago he was forced to leave his Lahu village near the Burma-China border. Four and a half years ago
The multi-ethnic residents of Naung Kan leprosy colony in eastern Shan State share surprisingly similar stories.
After contracting the disease, many were forced to leave their mountain villages in the heartland of the Golden Triangle and wander the countryside on their own—in some cases for decades—until arriving at this colony run by Catholic nuns around 5 miles from Kengtung.
After several visits, I became increasingly curious as to how these ethnic minority residents remained so strong after being ostracized from their communities so many years ago.
Dramatic photographs that focused on their sometimes startling deformities would naturally evoke pity. But they deserved more than this. These people weren’t helpless victims; they were survivors.
Despite their predicament, they were still fiercely independent and retained their pride. Everyone fended for themselves as much as they could manage.
Most cooked their own meals and kept their private spaces clean. Some residents raised their own chickens. Others rose each day to work in the colony’s gardens.
Burma still reports some 3,000 new leprosy cases annually and the capacity to detect cases in remote or conflict-affected regions remains problematic.
The residents of Naung Kan may have lost their place in the world after contracting the disease but, here, they have found a new place to call home.