Teaching, Learning, and Adapting Emotions in Uganda’s Child Leprosy Settlement, c.1930-62

Kathleen Vongsathorn introduces us to Chapter 4 of Childhood, Youth and Emotions in Modern History: National, Colonial and Global Perspectives.

By Kathleen Vongsathorn

The Kumi Children’s Leper Home was founded by the Anglican Church Missionary Society in 1930, for purpose of saving children from leprosy and transforming them into healthy, Christian citizens of the British Empire. Leprosy was a popular imperial philanthropic cause, and child leprosy sufferers were particularly prominent within this cause, in part because doctors believed children must be at the foundation of any successful effort to eradicate leprosy, but primarily because child leprosy patients presented a special opportunity. As children and as victims of leprosy, child leprosy sufferers were considered to be doubly vulnerable, and thus their potential salvation was an especially attractive prospect for philanthropists. Missionaries hoped to save these children from leprosy before the disease permanently disfigured them, but equally as important, in separating children from their supposedly dangerous and ‘primitive’ parents at a time in their lives when they were perceived as especially malleable, missionaries hoped to save child leprosy patients from backwardness, and to mould them into Christian citizens of the British Empire.

'Leper boys and girls, Kumi', Mission Hospital, 37.420 (1933 January), 7.

‘Leper boys and girls, Kumi’, Mission Hospital, 37.420 (1933 January), 7.

Missionaries perceived emotion as a means and an end in the physical and mental improvement of their child leprosy patients. They expected that life at the Kumi Children’s Leper Home would engender certain emotions in their child leprosy patients. Happiness, for example, was both an aim and an expectation, essential to healing children of their leprosy and to the experience of a real childhood, which the home purported to provide. Other emotions, like loyalty, courage, and nationalism, were expected to develop in conjunction with specific character traits that the missionaries encouraged in order to create healthy citizens of the British Empire. Missionaries employed a wide range of tactics in an attempt to create these emotions, from recreational activities meant to instil happiness, to drill exercises intended to promote British imperial pride, to a strict daily timetable meant to encourage respect and loyalty. These tactics were varying in their success, and Kumi’s child patients responded to the missionaries’ emotional agendas in a variety of ways, sometimes embracing or rejecting certain aspects, or other times performing emotions of happiness, enthusiasm, service, and obedience in order to win the missionaries’ favour and thus an opportunity for further education and economic advancement.

Taking missionaries at their word, all of the children at Kumi were truly happy, but looking beyond mission publications, it is evident that children at the settlement experienced both happiness and unhappiness.  Some children undoubtedly were happy at Kumi, with all the recreational, educational, and religious opportunities available.  When told that they were ready to be released symptom-free, some children wept and asked if they could return to the settlement if they were unhappy at home.  Equally, however, there were causes for unhappiness.

'Symptom-free children leaving Kumi Children's Leper Home and returning to their parents', Mission Hospital, 38.439 (August 1934), 184.

‘Symptom-free children leaving Kumi Children’s Leper Home and returning to their parents’, Mission Hospital, 38.439 (August 1934), 184.

Chief among the causes of unhappiness was separation from family, as exemplified by one child, when asked on his deathbed what he would like most, answering, ‘Sister I want to go home, just go home and see my people’.[i] In these instances, love was an emotion missionaries discouraged. If children were dying, missionaries did write to their relatives with an invitation to visit, but in general they did their best to displace relationships between children and their families, and lamented the necessity to allow children to go home to visit their parents. Some other causes of unhappiness were a dislike of school and the enforced routine that the children had to live under, disliking the painful injections they received as medical treatment, and forcing girls to eat eggs, which were culturally taboo for women. The latter is another example of the kind of emotion missionaries were trying to redirect: they hoped to transform respect for ‘native customs’ into respect for Christianity and British authority. They were not necessarily successful in this endeavour, however, as children acted out their unhappiness in a variety of ways, whether through ‘bad behaviour’ such as lying, stealing, or evading class, or through running away from the settlement, which about one in fifty children did annually.

[i] Leprosy Mission, 119/5, Gertrude Hopkins, ‘Leper work at Kumi and Ongino’, 1945.

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