The Guinea Worm & African Culture

One of the things that puzzles a lot of people is why Africa is such a complete and utter mess. Explanations for why that’s the case abound, but most of them conveniently try to blame the West for Africa’s problems. You have people claim that colonization or slavery is to blame. Some people will tell you that the West doesn’t care enough or that rich Western countries take advantage of Africa.

My theory? The culture in Africa, the backwards, superstitious, tribal mentality, that’s almost incomprehensible to Westerners is what’s dooming so many people in Africa to miserable lives and making real progress almost impossible.

Let me give you a piece of evidence, from the New York Times, that I think supports my theory.

The story is about the attempt to eradicate the Guinea worm in Africa. And the Guinea worm, as you’re about to read, is a nightmare well worth eradicating:

For untold generations here, yardlong, spaghetti-thin worms erupted from the legs or feet — or even eye sockets — of victims, forcing their way out by exuding acid under the skin until it bubbled and burst. The searing pain drove them to plunge the blisters into the nearest pool of water, whereupon the worm would squirt out a milky cloud of larvae, starting the cycle anew.

“The pain is like if you stab somebody,” said Hyacinth Igelle, a farmer with a worm coming out of a hand so swollen and tender that he could not hold a hoe. He indicated how the pain moved slowly up his arm. “It is like fire — it comes late, but you feel it even unto your heart.”

Sound horrible, right? Well, the good news is that the Guinea Worm, thanks to Jimmy Carter of all people, is about to be wiped out in Africa:

“Fewer than 12,000 cases were found last year, down from 3 million in 1986.”

The bad news, or more appropriately, the strange news is that it took 20 years to get to this point. The reason why it’s strange is that the Guinea Worm doesn’t appear to be particularly tough to send packing, as the New York Times explains:

“(The Guinea worm) ought to be almost ridiculously easy to wipe out, because it has a complex life cycle in which humans, worms, fleas and shallow ponds each must play their parts perfectly. Any missing link disrupts the chain of transmission.

Wells can be drilled to prevent the afflicted from plunging their limbs into the village’s drinking water. Or local water sources can be treated with a mild pesticide that kills the fleas that swallow the worm larvae and are, in turn, swallowed by the humans. Or every family can faithfully pour its water through a filter cloth each day, or drink through filtering straws. With unremitting effort, experts at the Carter Center now estimate, purging the last nine African countries of the disease could take five more years. Dr. Ernesto Ruiz-Tiben, technical director of its campaign, says he is sure that, at long last, victory is in sight.”

So, what’s the problem here? You would think this could have been done in a year, tops. Well, the problem is the culture as you’re about to see in this long excerpt about the agonizing quest to clear an area called Ogi of the worm:

“In 2001, Jacob Ogebe, a field officer for the Carter Center Guinea Worm Eradication Program, was trying to track down every pond in the area surrounding Ogi. He treated each with Abate, a mild pesticide that left the water potable, but killed the microscopic fleas that carry Guinea worm.

But slowly, he realized that Ogi’s villagers were misleading him. He heard rumors of a sacred pond, but no one would take him to it. “They kept leading me to other places,” he said. “Then one day, I was treating another pond, and I got lost and discovered it.”

Though it is only a triangular puddle about 20 feet on each side in a heavily trodden grove of trees, the villagers revere it. “We have laws here, so no one dirties it,” Gabriel Egba, the pond’s high priest, said in an interview on its edge.

…The pond teems with whiskery fish, turtles and snakes. More important, villagers say they believe that the souls of their ancestors also dwell in it, and Mr. Egba officiates at the sacrifices of roosters and rams for anyone wishing to talk to them.

After Mr. Ogebe found the pond, he said, villagers tried to dissuade him from treating it. “Some of them offered me money to hide it,” he said. “But I told my boss at the Carter Center. Then, each time I went to the village, people followed me around. There were threats on our lives.”

But by November 2003, the Carter Center’s office in Jos, the regional capital, had persuaded village leaders to treat it. Nigeria’s political leaders, constantly on the defensive against foreign accusations that the government here is inept or corrupt, had developed a sudden interest in the country’s increasingly successful Guinea worm eradication campaign. The Carter Center’s office was able to send in its biggest gun, short of a visit from Mr. Carter himself: Gen. Yakubu Gowon, who ruled Nigeria from 1966 to 1975.

…On the day of his visit to Ogi, he was greeted politely beneath the village’s central tree and was personally invited to pour the Abate into the pond. But when he and the other dignitaries walked the several hundred yards through tall grass to it, they found many of the village’s women forming a human wall around it.

“They had colors rubbed on their faces to show resistance,” like Indian war paint, Mr. Ogebe said. “They were chanting songs of their refusal.”

Sarah Pantuvo, General Gowon’s Guinea-worm eradication director, said the women shouted: “This disease is a curse from our ancestors, it has nothing to do with the pond water! If we let you touch anything, the ancestors will deal with us. We heard them crying all night!”

“I was very angry,” Ms. Pantuvo said.

But General Gowon tried to defuse the situation, telling the women: “You, the women who fetch water from this pond, were not consulted about treating it? You should have been.”

He assured them that the Abate would not harm the fish, and he told them that if their ancestors were benign, they would not want their children to be sick, and would like the pond treated.

But the women would have none of it. “Why don’t you go treat AIDS instead?” they shouted.

Finally, he backed down, saying he would return when the women were ready.

That evening, he visited Matthew Ogbu Egede, the paramount chief of the area around Ogi. Chief Egede was mortified.

“I am a Christian,” he said in an interview. “I don’t believe in anything about juju. These people objected out of ignorance. The devil made them object.”

He convened a meeting of “the elites,” a local chiefs council. Furious, they ordered the village to accept the pesticide treatment and pay a fine of “one very mighty native cow, plus goats, yams and kegs of palm wine,” Chief Egede said. The council sent the general an effusive letter of apology.

…Mr. Ogebe was allowed to treat the pond. Slowly, cases of Guinea worm disease died out in the area.

Let’s look at what we have here. In 2001, they find a pond. A very simple act, pouring a mild pesticide into a pond to kill microscopic fleas, could have taken care of the problem right then and there. But, it took people who persevered, despite death threats, until November of 2003 to get the job done and it only happened after the intervention of the former ruler of Nigeria.

Those women, who were standing around the pond with their faces painted, worrying about their ancestors? If one of those same women had been adopted and taken to the US when she was a baby, she might be a doctor or computer programmer today. But, trapped by their culture in Nigeria, these women are acting in a fashion that probably would have been considered primitive 500 years ago.

And it’s not just the Guinea worm. It’s how they deal with other diseases, capitalism, technology, and all the other wonders and tribulations of modern life. These people are crippled by their culture and all the well meaning Westerners in the world aren’t going to fix that. Until more African nations accept Democracy, the rule of law, capitalism, freedom of the press, and the other things that go along with a successful society, they’re doomed to wallow in poverty in misery, no matter how much money or help we try to give them. They’re living in a hell of their own making and until they decide they’d rather change their attitudes, there’s only so much we can do to help them.

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