Of Fons, Fleet and Fleas

Article excerpt

Since arriving in Africa during the 19th century, the jigger flea has spread across the continent, hitching a ride on the soles of people's feet. In the process it has brought misery to millions, causing painful sores that often become infected. George and Mark Collins report on efforts to quantify the scale of the problem in the highlands of Cameroon

The fon of Fuh stood erect and proud, adjusted his ceremonial cap and invited us through to the inner courtyard of his palace to meet his long-dead ancestors. We waited reverently outside a small thatched enclosure with split bamboo wails as he explained that inside lay the bones of his forebears, carefully preserved and keeping watch over his village.

'My ancestor's skulls are all inside this compound; there are many of them,' he said. 'If something troubles the village, we come here and seek guidance and help from them.'

Under the hereditary system, he told us, the village chief, or fon, as he is called in Cameroon's northwest, plays an important role in the traditions of village life, even long after he is dead. In times of disease or poor relations between villages, the spirits of the ancestral fons are invoked in the hope that they will restore good health and peace.

The fon and his extended family live in a distinguished, steeply roofed and gated palace with several courtyards and halls. These serve as a village meeting place, community hall and local court, as well as the fon's ancestral home. The fon of Fuh, while proud of his lineage and cultural heritage, is also a man of the times. Principal of a government bilingual high school with more than 1,000 students and an articulate community leader, he's actively involved in development and forestry projects, and improvements in communications and infrastructure.

A BIG NUISANCE

We had come to Cameroon to study the prevalence of the jigger flea, whose habit of burrowing into the skin of people's feet to find the blood that all fleas need in order to reproduce makes life miserable for many people there and, indeed, elsewhere in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. Sufferers have swollen feet, incessant itching and open wounds that can easily become infected.

For such a tiny insect, the jigger flea has made itself quite a nuisance, and has a most unusual history. It was first described in 1525 from 10,000 kilometres away in South America, where the species is endemic. Its subsequent arrival in Africa is surprisingly well documented. In 1872, the British ship Thomas Mitchell, carrying sand ballast from Rio de Janeiro, berthed in Ambriz in the southwest African state of Angola. The jiggers made landfall either in the sand or on the feet of the sailors--probably both. From there, they spread across the continent, travelling with caravan traffic from one trading station to the next. Just a quarter of a century after reaching Africa, the jigger flea was reported from the east coast island of Zanzibar, thus completing its transcontinental migration.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Our 'jigger team' consisted of medical students from University College London and Yaounde University in the capital, as well as a trainee nurse from the University of Buea.

'This is a valuable opportunity for our up-and-coming scientists to be initiated into research that will help them contribute individually and collectively to the future development of Cameroon,' said the team's mentor, Dr Njilah Isaac Konfor, president of the Cameroon Association of Young Scientists. 'Jiggers are an indicator of poverty, and our work will surely help pave the way for a better life.'

Thanks to Konfor, who was born in the northwest and suffered from jiggers as a young boy, we were quickly established in a modest house in Ndu, a small town in the Bamenda highlands, 300 kilometres north of the capital. …