The Leper Tree

PP: There’s the Leper Tree in Malawi, we used to go there when I was younger. Well we went to the park it was in– I have to look it up, what it was called–

TK: Liwonde? I just googled it.

PP: That sounds right. It was this big tree with human skulls, skeletons in a kind of pit at the base of the roots, and we would have to look at them. If I remember right it was because one of the tribes that was living in the area had an outbreak of leprosy and they would put them in the tree, tie them up and make them stay there until they died.

TK: When was this?

PP: Honestly I think it was pretty recent, definitely in the last century. Maybe the 1930s? The worst part was they had a justification for doing it, they didn’t have the medicine or healthcare available to treat the disease and it was very contagious, so it was like this horrible quarantine where they said they were protecting the healthy people. It was for the sake of everyone else. But it was still a terrible thing to do.

THE INFORMANT: The informant is a woman who lives in America now, although she grew up in Africa and Ireland. While growing up in Africa with her family in the 1960s, because her father was a missionary doctor, they were often exposed to subpar living conditions, local legends and true stories like the one about the Leper Tree.

ANALYSIS: The Leper Tree is a very real place, not a legend, but has become part of the folklore of the country due to the gruesome nature of its existence. Visitors to the park who come for the wildlife and beautiful natural settings are often brought to the tree and asked to look down upon the skeletons of those who were trapped in it as recently as the 1950s. It is commemorated by a plaque on the trunk that says simply, “The Grave For People Who Suffered From Leprosy in the Past.” Burial and the proper disposal of bodies has always been a cultural hallmark– many cultures develop incredibly specific rituals around burial rites, which makes things like the Leper Tree stand out and be recalled even now for how barbaric and unrelated to traditional notions of respect for the dead it is.