So…the last article was supposed to be an examination of one conspiracy theory strand: anti-vaccination sentiment in Tanzania, a phenomenon that is relatively new at least in the public conversations. Which is how I got to end it by alluding to an ‘unfinished project’ in Tanzania and the whole of Africa.
Since then I have recalled and even sought out more instances with similar fears of “They” and “Them” having ill intentions towards Africans through a number of interventions. The most commonly recurring fears centre around sterilisation and suspicion of birth control — not by choice.
Truth be told, medical history confirms these fears are not irrational. As with every part of human history, it is layered and hopeful but it isn’t free from problems. Medicine has a dark side — there is evidence of people being subjected to unethical experiments and research, dubious vaccination issues and worse. Disclaimer: this absolutely doesn’t mean distrusting or avoiding modern medicine. If anything, it makes it more trustworthy because of that human element.
With this in mind, I honestly looked for the uniqueness of African mistreatment and I found something that, yet again, I did not expect. The people who have died or been tortured for the modern medical sciences that we enjoy are pan-global. For fans of horror, medicine is a surprisingly fertile field. Please take a look at a few stories I managed to scare up that are verifiable by Google: the Tuskeegee airmen and why you should definitely take your antibiotics seriously. The Third Reich — full of nightmare fuel. The Stanford Prison Experiment on violence as part of our nature. Japan 731, which brings all of it together in a world class example of the depths of depravity.
And my goodness, so much stuff done to women over the centuries! Women, and children. With women in particular, the obsession with controlling fertility has always been brutal. Sterilisation programmes that laugh in the face of consent, surgeries, being used for — and this term is nauseating — “breeding” programmes. And then there is the other side, denial of birth control and such. I mean, there’s medical history and then there’s medical history when it comes to women. A whole different level of horror, as always.
So maybe I should not have been so surprised that when the epidemic started, there was talk of it being a deliberate action. By now we know ourselves quite well. Biological and medical warfare is not exactly the stuff of imagination. Here’s the thing though: as I listened to arguments about how Covid-19 was being used to wipe Africans out so that ‘They’ could take over the continent or whatever, it occurred to me that this was a rather badly designed weapon. The devastation of the disease is as even-handedly brutal across the globe as medical misdemeanour.
If anything, Africa may perhaps have been spared somewhat from its worst ravages so far. Covid-19 and vaccination is not about us being African, why would we make it so?
Maybe it is a matter of self-determination. Where we assign blame we also assign power. Where I thought I was listening to sentiments about the disease, really what was going on was two things: a real gap in knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, and an expression of fear and disempowerment. And for the first time in a while, I thought of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere. In writings about him and his philosophy, whether or not he coined the term, there was a bit of an obsession about self-determination. That’s the unfinished project.
A large part of Nyerere’s vision for his country’s development revolved around literacy. I think he was biased because you know how teachers are always trying to get you to learn something, but upon looking at the issue again there was a subtle message there about what is happening now.
We call this the Age of Information. If you are not informed, you are disempowered. If you are misinformed or disinformed you are compromised. Hm. What did Julius know? Maybe something about reading?
The world is a complicated place, perhaps now more than it has ever been before. When I check the news there’s always someone trying to go to space, which is fun if expensive and strange. Or about the control of information, which is less fun and all too real. While trying to make sense of anti-vaxers in Tanzania I also had to consider that we are the country that breeds rats whose job it is to sniff out the most cowardly of weapons, landmines. Yet just a year ago we were a Covid-denying polity. What is this dichotomy about? Information.
I didn’t expect to come out of this with compassion for anti-vax by the way. But I did. Learning has a terrible way of making one reconsider a position, maybe even find compassion and understanding. And it does prompt reflection.
The fear that fuels anti-vaccination sentiment can absolutely be countered by knowledge and information and a belief in one’s mastery of the present and the future: namely self-determination. Which is where science fiction comes in…next week. Julius Nyerere, science fiction and anti-vax. Only in The EastAfrican.
Elsie Eyakuze is a consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report: E-mail: [email protected]