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"The Lepers of Bonike"

They say in one story or another to conquer your fears, you must face them. For pretty much everything, I’m down with that.

Can’t do tarantulas. Or needles. Or two-legged stools.

But for the most part, I will do the face them thing and let ‘er whistle.

I met Shaun McNally in 1984 in the Liberian bush town of Karloke. He lived 30 miles south and when my motorcycle arrived, I road tripped to see what I could see.

Shaun was a fellow fish volunteer. A highly trained, steely-eyed aquaculture missile man who worked with rural rice farmers to build fishponds among the jungle mists of Africa. Yes, you can build fishponds in the middle of the jungle…if you are a highly trained, steely-eyed aquaculture missile man.

Or woman.

Shaun was one plus years into his two-year commitment. I'd just arrived. It behooved me to become fast friends and that proved easy. We remain so today.

At some point, Shaun sent a note north telling me to make use of that motorbike and come visit. We had some work to do. So, I did.

“I’ve started talking to these elders in Bonike. It’s a bit south of here,” said the mighty McNally upon my arrival. “They are digging their first fishpond, but it will take time. I won’t be able to finish it all. That will be on you.”

“Sure,” I replied fearlessly. “Lego.”

Not a typo. I give you a free Liberian English lesson. “Lego” is Liberian for “Let’s go.” They did that a lot.

“Great. Lego,” said Shaun.

He hesitated as he grabbed his helmet.

“Ummm, you should know,” he whispered unflappably, “Bonike is a leper colony.”

Mr. Freeze hit me in the face with the Mr. Freeze gun.


“Bonike. It’s a leper colony.”

This is the point where the lethal Peace Corps man-up exam is laid out right in front of you. It’s pass/fail, do or die, and you don’t hesitate. It’s the experienced volunteer waving the worm in front of the rookie volunteer. It’s, “You eat the worm, or you go home.”

I ate the worm and strapped on.

And down the road we scooted to Bonike…the leper colony.

Let’s review.

I was raised Catholic. Baptism, catechism, first communion, confirmation, altar boy. Throughout those highly formative years, the sisters made sure we knew about the miracle-making skills of the One-and-Holy. And In terms of curing diseases, Jesus did not mess around with cancer or heart disease. His mission was to cancel the big kahuna:


If you go big, or so we were taught, you go leprosy. Twelve or thirteen hard years of suffering Catholic leprosy stories. Especially its infectiousness. They would put lepers in caves and you couldn’t touch them. Everything fell off. Then you died.

That was my mind blur as we biked down the dirt road to Bonike.

Are you kidding me? We are going to a leper colony to grow fish? This McNally dude has lost his mind. I don’t have to do this. I’ll just turn around. I’ll ram him off the road. I’ll just keep going and drink beers in Harper.

My options disappeared suddenly. We were at the trail exit to Bonike. Too late. I’m going to die.

Please Jesus, be in Bonike.

Our Suzukis squirmed slowly up the trail slope for about half a mile from the main road to the small cloister of Bonike huts. They were expecting us.

Shaun led the way. Clearly, his Catholic upbringing was beyond my nightmare. He greeted the Bonike elders like old buddies. Shaking hands. Hugs all around.

Then it was my turn. If you want to conquer your fears, you stand up and face them.


Francis was the lead elder. His feet and hands mostly gone and bandaged. His face also infected; a bit contorted to one side. But with clear eyes and a sincere, wide smile, he held out his right arm. I reached out and shook his wrist. That’s all he had. He welcomed me to his village.

I shook hands/wrists with everyone in the village. Women, children, all the elders. We sat and ate the cola nut. Shaun turned it over to me and we made plans for my next visit. We finished, mounted the bikes and returned to Karloke. But the fear factor was still there, wafting around my brain like smoke in an airplane. Nowhere to go. Jesus had skipped town.

Eventually, Shaun departed Liberia and it was up to me. I could bug out. Not say anything. But I didn’t do that. Afterall, I'd shaken their wrists.


The next year was transformational. With help from the United Nations, we turned Bonike into Fishpond Land. They turned a jungle swamp into five, tilapia-producing ponds, and for good measure, we built a piggery to raise pigs whose manure fed the fish. Completely self-sustained. They did this with shovels, picks, hoes, and cutlasses. They did this without fingers, toes, hands or feet. The fear dissipated. The smoke went away. You people are really good. Who needs Jesus?

On my final visit to Bonike, we had a party. I brought a couple bottles of cane juice and we did bootleg booze shots next to the fishponds. We shared glasses. We spilled everything. We all laughed and hugged and got drunk. I said goodbye and that was that.

Turns out, leprosy is a mildly infectious bacterial disease. No reason to quarantine persons infected with leprosy.

Thanks, sisters.

Years later, after Google Earth happened, I found a view of Bonike from space. All five ponds still there. Rock it, Bonike!

Then, sadly, a few years ago, Shaun returned to Liberia and like most things there, he discovered Bonike was gone. The civil wars cancelled Bonike, the fishponds and everything else.

When you work in this world to help people rise, you understand it is short-lived. But there was a time in Bonike when we drank, laughed, hugged and ate tilapia. Without fear.


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