Dis-Ease in the Colonial State: Medicine, Society, and Social Change among the Abanyole of Western Kenya

Dis-Ease in the Colonial State: Medicine, Society, and Social Change among the Abanyole of Western Kenya

Dis-Ease in the Colonial State: Medicine, Society, and Social Change among the Abanyole of Western Kenya

Dis-Ease in the Colonial State: Medicine, Society, and Social Change among the Abanyole of Western Kenya


Olumwullah examines disease, biomedicine, and processes of social change among the AbaNyole of Western Kenya and analyzes the introduction and use of biomedicine as a cultural tool of domination by British colonizers and the AbaNyole's reaction to this therapeutic tradition and its technologies. He argues that biomedicine is a tool that the colonizers used to think about the colonized. Through an examination of ideas about order and disorder in Nyole cosmology, Nyole experiences with new diseases and biomedical practices that were brought to bear on these diseases; and how these experiences and the meanings they produced transformed metaphors of disease, illness, and healing, this study argues that, just as colonialism was more than a quest for the construction of exploitative political and economic institutions, so was biomedicine more than a mere matter of scientific interest based on benevolent neutrality.

By setting the terms of discourse between the West and the African culural environment, and by insinuating itself at the center of contestation over knowledge between a British science and African ways of knowing, colonial biomedical science turned the African body into a site of colonizing power and of contestation between the colonized and the colonizer. Narratives about the incidence of diseases like the plague were in themselves experiences of suffering that opened a window to how local knowledge about disease etiology and disease causation was produced among the AbaNyole. Instead of being passive victims of capitalistic forces of domination and exploitation, the Nyole confronted biomedicine as its assemblage of practices inhabited, passed through, transformed, conserved, or escaped the terrain sketched by a pre-European Nyole worldview. Conventioanl expectations about disease as misfortune were altered as colonialism came to be seen and experienced as a form of social death the AbaNyole had never before encountered.


Out there in the colonies… sits wretched Lazarus.

Albert Schweitzer

Imperialism and the constitution of Africa as

By any standards, whether in the public domain or in the marketplace of ideas, Africa, perhaps more than any other part of the so-called developing world, has always been, medically, a landscape of fear. This is even more so with that part of the continent variously referred to as sub-Saharan Africa, Tropical Africa, or simply Africa south of the Sahara. This, in the minds of many Westerners, has for centuries been home to a myriad of deadly viruses: arboviruses like chikungunya and o’nyong-nyong; enteroviruses responsible for diseases like polio, meningitis, encephalitis, respiratory illnesses, diarrhea, and severe forms of conjunctivitis; filoviruses and that class of retroviruses known as lentiviruses responsible for Ebola and Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), respectively; and paramyxoviruses that cause diseases like measles and mumps. But this part of Africa is also known to harbor, alongside these viruses, deadly bacteria like Bordetella pertussis, vibrio cholerae, and Yersinia pestis, various nematodes, trematodes, and cestodes, as well as Plasmodium, a genus of protozoans that are considered to be higher on the evolutionary ladder than viruses and bacteria and are responsible for malaria. All these have, historically, been used in a variety of ways in the West to construct Africa as a degenerate, pathological space that sends shivers down the spines of many a visitor to the continent.

The production of knowledge on these viruses and bacteria as well as the diseases that they cause were for much of the first half of the twentieth century . . .

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