History professor Bill McCoy will deliver a paper at one of the oldest historical and the world’s largest professional associations, The American Historical Association, in Chicago in early January. The paper, entitled “We Are Thrown Away The Language of Leprosy at the Encabaneni Leprosy Settlement, Swaziland, 1934-1948”, examines a small leprosy settlement in Swaziland and their global connections through missionaries and British colonial agents. The paper is part of his doctoral dissertation through Boston University.
This paper examines the community of leprosy patients gathered at a small leprosy settlement in western Swaziland and their connections via missionaries and British colonial agents to a global network of people concerned about leprosy. The Encabaneni settlement was never supposed to be a formal part of the Swazi colonial government’s efforts to deal with leprosy; rather, it had opened in 1934 in response to the persistent demands of four Swazi leprosy patients housed at the Westfort Leprosy Hospital in South Africa who had grown weary of living far from home while receiving only marginally beneficial care. But once it had opened, dozens of patients began to settle at the site, some of them voluntarily and others under the direction of colonial medical officers. By the time Encabaneni was replaced by a larger colonial institution in 1948, the camp was overcrowded and its structures badly dilapidated. For the colonial government, the settlement had become an embarrassment; for the Protestant missionaries from both the US and the UK, Encabaneni embodied the piteous state of leprosy sufferers who needed both physical and spiritual salvation. Seemingly lost to both of them were the ideas of the Swazi patients who had their own distinct views on their suffering, even as they learned to use Western preoccupations with leprosy to their own advantage. Using evidence collected from oral interviews as well as documents in colonial and missionary archives, I examine the differing ways in which all these parties constructed their own particular ideas of the condition of Swaziland’s leprosy sufferers and to what extent these ideas contributed to the formation of a peculiar identity for members of the leprosy community.