It would be nice to say that Graham Greene just appeared one day in Yonda, the leprosy settlement in the Equateur Province of the then Belgian Congo where I was the doctor, stepping off the gangway of the bishop's riverboat as Querry does in A Burnt-Out Case. But Greene did not come unannounced. His visit to Yonda had been arranged through a common friend in Brussels. In his letter to this friend, he had expressed the wish 'for the purposes of a book to spend some weeks in a hospital of the Schweitzer kind in Africa, but run by a religious order'. My first reaction was mixed: Dr Schweitzer was not highly regarded at the time by health professionals, and our settlement was very different from the leproseries that Greene seemed to be looking for. Yonda was a large village near the River Congo, with small brick houses set along avenues bordered by mango trees; it housed more than a thousand leprosy patients. There was no segregation of the 'lepers', a cruel and unnecessary measure meant to prevent the transmission of the disease. Leprosy is not particularly contagious, and out of some 100,000 patients at the time in the Congo, no more than 10 per cent would have been infectious. Patients could go freely in and out of the compound; their families lived with them if they chose to. There were schools, and children were examined at regular intervals for the onset of symptoms, which at an early stage are easy to cure. There were workshops, plots of land for cultivation and a dozen dugouts (which we called 'pirogues') on the riverbanks. Some patients used to be fishermen, and on the gravel road leading to town one was always coming across patients or their relatives pedalling to the market, carrying fish or piles of vegetables for sale on the backs of their bicycles. Yonda was aiming to become the prototype of a modern institution for the care of leprosy. It didn't seem what Greene had in mind for his prospective book, and so I did nothing to encourage him to come, though I did spend a Sunday preparing a large chart describing a dozen leproseries in Africa that seemed to me better suited than Yonda to accommodate him.
LRB 2 August 2007 | PDF Download