The Love that Grew into Kampung Bahagia
Near the Sungai Buloh Settlement lies a Malay village called Kampung Bahagia, Bukit Lagong, where most of the villagers are recovered leprosy patients. The area was still wild and undeveloped in 1981 when Rauf built the first house here, on a land he cleared. Then, other recovered patients came too and gradually developed the land into a village of about 40 households.
A Sungai Buloh Settlement Council member, Haji Rauf bin Ibrahim was a lawn care worker in the leprosarium when he was younger. At the age of 31, he was introduced to his now wife by his brother-in-law and decided to marry her and spend the rest of his life with her. However, because his wife was not a leprosy patient, and non-patients were not allowed to live in the settlement, he found a good spot for a house in Bukit Lagong and built it from ground up, creating a home of their own.
Thirty-five years of marriage later, Rauf is now a father of five and a grandfather of three at 66 years of age. The couple live a comfortable and tranquil life with their children and grandchildren in a big, fenceless, cement house.
Rauf remembers that it was 1967 when he rode on his brother-in-law’s Vespa, heading all the way to the settlement in Kuala Lumpur from Negeri Sembilan. He was only 16 at that time.
When he was about 7 or 8 years old, white spots appeared on his body. His mother knew that he had contracted leprosy but she kept him with her because she did not want them to be separated from each other. Soon, his condition deteriorated and the white spots began to spread to his legs; the muscles in his left hand contracted and weakened. This ate away at his self-esteem. He began to isolate himself from his peers as they began to ask questions, out of curiosity, about the condition of his body. As a result, Rauf only made it to Primary 6. He was often absent due to health problems, and his schoolmates were afraid of him, so he walled himself off from everyone at school.
“When we were changing our clothes for Physical Education classes, my classmates would see the white spots on my body and ask, ‘What happened? Is it ringworm?’ and I had no idea what to reply,” he said.
Finally, one day, he told his parents that he had made up his mind to go to the leprosarium and stay there. He was so determined to seek treatment that he did not care whether he would leave the leprosarium alive or dead.
And so he went, arriving at the Sungai Buloh Settlement at lunchtime. Medical Superintendent Dr MK Bhojwani performed the clinical diagnostic test for him. He tapped on the rubber-band-like area on Rauf’s hand and asked if he could feel any sensation. Rauf replied that he felt nothing at all and was admitted right away.
Life was difficult for him when he had just been admitted to the hospital ward. “I was very sad. And the food did not agree with my taste buds either. Back then, our meals were prepared by the inmate workers. Sometimes, I’d find chicken feathers in my food. That was just too disagreeable, so I could only eat the vegetables. The mutton was still okay, but not the chicken, I lost my appetite when I saw the feathers.” He let out a roar of laughter.
Fortunately, he still had someone he can count on in Kuala Lumpur. His brother-in-law who gave him a ride to the leprosarium was a special branch police officer. He was living in the police quarter in Cheras at the time and would visit Rauf occasionally, bringing with him lots of good food.
Rauf said when Malaysia had just gained independence, there were a number of doctors from India, the United Kingdom and Hong Kong. He even received a massage once from a professional massage therapist of foreign origin.
Then, he also had a surgery on his left hand but it could not be cured. Fortunately, his right hand remains flexible, and his legs are fine so he can still ride a motorcycle. It is a mercy for him and he has always been grateful for that.
During the 1960s when Multidrug Therapy (MDT) had not been developed, the only drug available was Dapsone. That’s what Rauf has been taking for 18 years.
When he was 21, he applied for a job at the settlement after moving into the chalet. “During the interview, I said I would like to be a security guard but the Medical Superintendent said no, and, ‘Your hands are weak, how are you going to catch a mad person? Sometimes, there will be mad people, some leprosy patients are mentally disturbed. If someone loses his mind, how are you going to arrest him if you don't have strong hands?’ So, he let me choose between two jobs – a lawn care worker or a ward assistant – and I said, ‘I’ll be a lawn care worker then’. I did not want to be a ward assistant and take care of bed-ridden patients. That’s too much for me.”
He said the settlement would provide uniforms, shoes, scythes and sharpening stones for the lawn care workers. These British-made scythes have curved blades and solid wood handles that were very heavy and difficult to be used, if handled with a weak left hand. Later on, he got newer scythes made of aluminium handles and things became easier for Raif; cutting dulls the edge over time and he had to get new scythes from the store every four or five months.
The lawn care workers worked from Monday to Friday. At half-past six every morning, they report to work and are briefed by a supervisor on the areas to be covered for the day. Anywhere with grass too tall, they would be sent to trim it. The lawn care workers used to work in the field, areas around the chalets, East Section chalets and even on the site of the current Sungai Buloh Hospital. Rauf said they used to start around 7 o’clock and finish at 10.
Rauf said the scythes they used had very sharp blades and he once got hurt by it. He recalled that there was a patient who kept the scythes for the lawn care workers at a fee of one to two dollars per month. One day, that patient fell off from a bicycle and was cut when he was sending the scythes back to the store.
After work, he added, the lawn care workers can choose to keep their scythes in the store or bring them home, whichever is more convenient for them. Some workers would simply place them somewhere at a nearby chalet because it is more convenient, however they would have to pay for it if the scythes went missing.
There were many patients in the settlement and jobs were scarce at that time. For fairness, the settlement has a rule that dictates an inmate worker should hand over his or her job to another inmate after a period of 6 months, so that everyone would have a chance to find work. There were about 15 lawn care workers for each period. Rauf remembers that the number of patients plummeted at the end of the 1960s and there were even once when it was difficult to hire a substitute worker. However, in 1969, the empty chalets were filled up once again when the government relocated 317 patients from the closed down Pulau Jerejak Settlement to the Valley of Hope. Hence, the six-month rotation system resumed in the 1970s.
At the beginning, Rauf’s monthly allowance was only 61 dollars, but it was then adjusted to 136 dollars in the 1970s. Rauf retired when five service areas – cleaning, grounds maintenance, linen and laundry, engineering and biomedical service – were outsourced in 1996 to Radicare (M) Sdn Bhd, a concession company. However, he continued to receive his work allowance like the rest of the inmate workers until 2012 when the settlement replaced the payment with a pension of RM100 per month.
When the six-month rotation system was in force and Rauf had no work, he grew papaya trees by his chalet. He said the settlement was still practising fresh ration distribution at that time and a grocer’s truck would come every day to deliver fresh rations. When the papayas were ready for harvest, he would sell them to the grocer, who would buy fresh produce from the patients and then sell them elsewhere.
The settlement had a limited supply of land, so certain inmates would clear parts of the land in an adjacent forest to grow crops. In 1973, when Rauf was 23, he did the same and cleared a patch of woods nearby in order to farm sweet potatoes and bananas for extra money. It was also there that he found a spot for the house he was going to build, prior to taking his wife in 1981.
When Rauf and his wife started seeing each other, he kept his leprosy history a secret. After getting married, the couple stayed in a house owned by Rauf’s elder sister and brother-in-law in Kampung Pandan. One day, his wife went to the settlement with his sister and brother-in-law for a walk and noticed the marks of leprosy in the other patients there. Then, she began to suspect that Rauf is an ex-leprosy patient, judging from his bent and contracted left hand.
“Well, the die is cast. What else can she do? What is done is done, and there is no way to change it.” He chortled. But then he giggled and said, “But her heart remains unchanged after she found out and I appreciate her dedication.”
One month after their marriage, the house he built from scratch was completed and he moved in with his newly wedded wife, becoming the first family to settle in Kampung Bahagia Bukit Lagong. The environment, according to him, was “Awful, just like a forest, there was no power supply and the road was in a very bad condition.”
Over time, other Malays who married non-patients came to this place to build their own houses too. Gradually, the forested land grew into a small village, complete with electricity, water supply and tarred roads. It even has a big mosque and market stalls – just like any other Malay kampung. One day in a meeting, the villagers decided to name their village, “Kampung Bahagia Bukit Lagong”, based on the existing name of the area (Bukit Lagong.) This year, 35 years after the village was founded, Rauf and the villagers finally obtained their long-awaited land deeds, and they now live a happy and carefree life, in a village that grew, seeded by a house born of Rauf’s love for his wife.
Narrated by Haji Rauf
Interviewed by Chan Wei See & Wong San San
Written by Chan Wei See
Translated by Zoe Chan Yi En
Edited by Low Sue San