My mother chose one morning of her hair combing to get nostalgic and philosophical about life. She went on about how present generations knew little about struggle, strangely using head lice as an instance. She praised humankind’s advancement: “We have really come very far. I mean, if you had told the teenage me that a time would come when head lice would be eradicated, I wouldn’t believe you.” I nodded along gingerly hoping to communicate to her: I get your point. But the woman wasn’t ready to let the topic go, so I had to tell her:
White people still get head lice.
I am still shocked at how shocked she was about this information. Because in her thinking, how could a people, a race who have, in their respective nations, been in the bond of nationhood for centuries; a people who gave themselves a heads up in the global race for development by fueling their development journeys pillaging natural and human resources from this country and that country; a people hence now leading the way in modern advancements and development, how could such a people still miss out on this particular ‘advancement’ of head-lice-free existence?
I remember a mate of mine in the university stop abruptly, mid-sentence; I notice his pause only last as long as a group of White students pass by. What’s wrong? He responded matter-of-factly, like I was the only one in the world who did not know, “They smell—you know, because they don’t like bathing.” Oh! How easy it is to condemn and degrade people who aren’t us.
The African-American grew up hearing: ‘Black people can never get head lice. Only white people do.’ Many have expressed, and will express outright shock to hear that this is, in fact, false.
I could have done something to assuage my mother’s shock, you know. I could have told her that, in fact, there were a lot of people worldwide—of diverse races (Black people included, and perhaps some Ghanaians still) who still get head lice. I could have explained further that though it was true that Black people were less prone to it than Caucasians, the reason had perhaps to do with the shape of our hair shafts (which makes it difficult for these insects to cling to, and survive in our hair); or the fact that Black males typically keep their hair short (head lice suffocate in hair less than 6 millimeters long) than with the personal hygiene of our white counterparts.
But, by heaven, isn’t it quicker and easier putting these two premises, these stereotypes together: a) the comment made by this university mate of mine; b) the misconception by say African-Americans that it is only white people who get lice—and reaching the conclusion that it is in fact the former that causes the latter.
And this, I must say, is an option the rest of the world exercise on us Black people a lot: concoct stereotypes, pigeon-hole the Black race in said stereotypes. Tragically, that is an option we even exercise on our own selves.
It is true the continent accounts for 90% of malaria cases worldwide, and in fact this enormous percentage has remained consistently so for many years. It is true that poverty plays a major role in the proliferation of the disease (it is a vicious cycle, for the disease is also cause for poverty prevalence, with the plunge in productivity the sickness causes in the workforce). These in a longlist of facts and figures have added to the world’s pigeonholed thinking so thus we have it: Poverty. Diseases. Africa.
Such degrading adjectives attached to the continent, although having factual basisare hammered on in such a way that the impression it creates is not one of ‘Africa, a typically developing continent’, but of ‘Africa an isolated continent’; isolated in its experiences—of endemic poverty, diseases, etc.
In many ways, Africa’s narrative has not been different from the rest of the world’s—the developed world’s. Widespread poverty, diseases, environmental challenges, etc. are not trademarks of the African continent but symptomatic of any budding society.
Malaria is most prevalent in tropical and subtropical regions owing to the fact that the disease’s vector, mosquitoes—specifically the female Anopheles mosquito flourishes best in these climates. This however, did not stop temperate regions of the world such as a then-growing Europe, USA, etc. from suffering this disease.
It was not until the mid-1970s that Europe eradicated malaria; and even with this zero didn’t mean zero, for it was not until 2015 that the subcontinent reported its first instance of zero indigenous malaria cases.
Prior to this, factors such as poor economic and environmental conditions, poor personal hygiene and living conditions of citizenries, poor healthcare systems, etc. all typical of a developing nation, helped give the disease foothold in Europe. Although the subcontinent’s temperate climate, differing from Africa’s additional burden of a tropical climate, served to help cull the activity of the Plasmodium parasite hence the disease.
When economic conditions of this temperate subcontinent experienced a surge and living conditions bettered, the fight against malaria was won and was comparatively (to Africa’s fight) easy.
Yet another temperate region, USA, had since the 15th century, just like Europe, been an endemic region. The nation, then sharing the same features of any budding society: substandard environmental and living conditions, had within it, conducive environments for the festering and breeding of mosquitoes, and consequently of malaria. In fact it is the prevalence of this disease that informed the formation of the nation’s Center for Disease Control in 1946. It was not until somewhere mid-1950s that the country successfully eradicated malaria—this also made relatively easier by its temperate climate.
There is nothing shocking about malaria’s prevalence in tropical, now developing, Africa. This indication of ‘normalcy’, owing to shared experiences, is not to, however, encourage us into complacency. It is not to say that it is okay that an estimated 91% of all this era’s malarial deaths are recorded in the continent; that a large chunk of these numbers are consistently pregnant women and children under five; that it causes more deaths than all other parasitic diseases combined; that it continues to gravely affect the continent economically (Africa loses an estimated $12 billion to the disease annually.)
On the contrary, it was worth pointing out this shared experience, because one still sees such comments in texts, articles on Africa, never stingy on their condescension—and I am paraphrasing—“It is shocking that a large number of the world’s population are still battling such (an eradicated) disease” And to these I find myself retorting: Give us a break already!
A quick glance at nation’s individual development journeys worldwide, reveal differing timelines of nationhood and milestones. It is true Africa is late at its attainment of certain milestones pertaining to economic and socioeconomic growth. But let us not forget why—that while these developed nations had kick-started their national journey centuries ago, we on the African continent were otherwise engaged—in slavery, colonialism, overall oppression, and all that jazz.
One nation’s “modern/advanced age” is another nation’s “humble beginnings”, is all I’m saying.
The malaria burden is largely an African burden in this era. And if tropical Africa is going to win this fight, we must fight harder than these temperate region developed nations ever did in their national lives.
Credit: Modern Ghana