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poster of Maragoli proverb of significance to medical anthropology inyundu erondera kehegerete with image ofof sad African child afflicted with small pox in the background

Meet The Maragoli Proverb of Significance to Medical anthropology

It’s not often that one can link African oral literature with the modern science of epidemiology. Such an intricate exercise is within the realm of medical anthropology, whose practitioners locally shouldn’t fill the fingers of one hand. But for an ‘old’ disease like smallpox, you could be in some luck. It shouldn’t therefore be lost on us the ingenuity, epidemiological, medical historical and anthropological value, of this gem of a Maragoli proverb of significance to medical anthropology : Inyundu erondera keheregete. The proverb translates to Smallpox (Inyundu) comes along with measles (keheregete)

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Smallpox was declared an eradicated disease more than thirty years ago in May of 1980.  I’ve walked the ends of my village, talked to the eldest voices,  nonagenarians and octagenarians, and they all confirm one thing: Smallpox was no joke. Luckily for most of them, they only got to hear about the ravaging effects of smallpox on generations before them.

But still, a pungent reminder in the form of this Maragoli proverb of significance to medical anthropology. In contemporary times, this luhya proverb serves to be cautionary, especially to those who hold delegated responsibility of being caregivers , of letting things slide. It cautions them against a laissez-faire attitude. To desist from lazily dismissing ominous signs for red herrings.

Like a teacher who may excuse missing of classes by labeling it ‘naughtiness’ and yet the undue class absenteeism is indeed manifestation of serious disease like drug addiction. Worse, even manifestation of abusive states with psychological trauma.

statue of man administering vaccine to the upper right arm of a girl as mother (eyes to the sky) and father (hands held at back) look on
In May of 2010, a statue commemorating the 30th anniversary of the eradication of smallpox was unveiled in front of the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters by then Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr Margaret Chan.

Why does this Maragoli proverb obsess over measles and smallpox?

The answer lies in scientific literature. We start of with a paper on Smallpox and measles: historical aspects and clinical differentiation, published in a leading medical journal.  In the abstract section of this paper, the linguistic anthropological power of, Inyundu erondera keheregete is evident. This quality is the prime reason why we find it to be the Maragoli proverb of significance to medical anthropology.

The abstract (see quote below) informs us just how indistinguishable measles and small pox can be in the early stages of disease. When we contextualize the postulation of the abstract to our saying, the linguistic nous of this saying emerges.

Smallpox and measles have ravaged native populations worldwide for centuries. Millions of people have succumbed to smallpox or measles or suffered from their effects. Clinicians wonder how their predecessors confused measles with smallpox. The difficulty was in differentiating smallpox and measles in their early phases, which had important public health implications. The prodromal rash of smallpox sometimes resembled measles. Clinicians through the ages learned to differentiate smallpox and measles in their early stages.

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Why then the undue fuss to be on the look out for smallpox, once measles is suspected?

Yet again, another published paper supplements our efforts : Smallpox: the triumph over the most terrible of the ministers of death. This paper helps shed light on why mulogooli saw it fit to preserve this life saving information so succinctly, blessing us with a rarity: a Maragoli proverb of significance to medical anthropology.

The society for medical anthropology lists: risk and protective dimensions of human behavior; the experience of illness and the social relations of sickness and perceptions of risk, vulnerability and responsibility for illness and health care; as issues studied by medical anthropologists.
Juxtaposing the issues raised in this paper’s abstract (see quote below) and the caution implored by the tone and content of Inyundu erondera keheregete , we do rouse answers to these issues of medical anthropology .

Smallpox afflicted humankind as no other disease had done; its persistence and diffusion were without parallel. The disease brought down at least three empires. Generations watched helplessly as their children succumbed to the disease or were disfigured or blinded by it.

The epidemiological value of this Maragoli proverb of significance to medical anthropology

The World Health Organization defines epidemiology as the study of the distribution and determinants of health-related states or events (including disease), and the application of this study to the control of diseases and other health problems.

Two things here: First, the existence of a lulogoli word for both smallpox and measles could be indicative of well dated exposure of the community to the communicable diseases.

Secondly, the oral accounts by living nonagenarians who date the last small pox epidemic to have afflicted the generation before them helps us further calibrate the dates. Moreover, the abstract section of this paper on Smallpox: emergence, global spread, and eradication, only helps our scholarly aims

Speculatively, it is suggested that variola virus, the cause of smallpox, evolved from an orthopoxvirus of animals of the central African rain forests (possibly now represented by Tatera poxvirus), some thousands of years ago, and first became established as a virus specific for human beings in the dense populations of the Nile valley perhaps five thousand years ago. By the end of the first millennium of the Christian era, it had spread to all the densely populated parts of the Eurasian continent and along the Mediterranean fringe of north Africa. It became established in Europe during the times of the Crusades. The great voyages of European colonization carried smallpox to the Americas and to Africa south of the Sahara. Transported across the Atlantic by Europeans and their African slaves, it played a major role in the conquest of Mexico and Peru and the European settlement of north America. Variolation, an effective preventive inoculation, was devised as early as the tenth century. In 1798 this practice was supplanted by Jenner’s cowpox vaccine. In 1967, when the disease was still endemic in 31 countries and caused ten to fifteen million cases and about two million deaths annually, the World Health Organization embarked on a programme that was to see the disease eradicated globally just over ten years later, and the world was formally declared to be free of smallpox in May 1980. Smallpox is unique–a specifically human disease that emerged from some animal reservoir, spread to become a worldwide, severe and almost universal affliction, and finally underwent the reverse process to emergence, namely global eradication.

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