I traveled with Kousuke Okahara to see an ex-leprosy patient colony living in the far corners of rural China. Only thing that these ex-patients had in common with each other was that they were all victims of the same disease.
There was a time when the world considered leprosy to be a serious health issue that caused fear among society. Despite this fear leprosy victims tend to live quietly in the final part of their lives.
The term Third World is today considered by some to be outdated and as a result a new term, the Forth World, is being used to describe slum areas in third world countries that are lagging behind in economic development as well as Sub-Saharan Africa, inner city ghettos in the United States, and immigration centers for illegal immigrants in Europe.
One of the characteristics of this new Forth World is that people are excluded from professions, medical care, and generally any form of social life. In a social context they are not really alive, but then they are not dead either. This reminds me of the leprosy colonies that used to exist throughout the world.
Does the end of leprosy mean that the human race has achieved one of its main medical goals or does it mean the beginning of a history without any negativity? If we are waiting for the death of these victims, and the end of Leprosy, then it is similar to the Forth World - a space of exclusion.
There were eleven ex-patients living in the village on the other side of the river and we were told that this was the first time they had been visited by foreigners. When our visit was coming to a close they came to say goodbye. When I looked back at the village from our small, unsteady rowboat I saw old houses almost to the point of ruin. I’m sure there were people living there. Despite being excluded from society and discriminated against they were open towards strangers like us. The barrier that divided them from society was something other than the width of the river.
I crossed the river to witness the death of a disease but it felt strange to know that the villagers had not crossed it for decades.