Between Wet and Dry|Between Life and Death: Fishwork, Colonial Control and Transformations in the Littoral Ecology of Disease

Date and Time: 
Thursday, 17 March, 2016 - 09:30
, Jennifer Lee - Purdue University | Department of Anthropology

In the decade that followed the 1900 signing of the Uganda Agreement, an estimated 200,000-300,000 individuals in this newly forming nation died. Colonial administrators and contemporary scholars alike have attributed their deaths to an outbreak of sleeping sickness, a disease transmitted through the bite of blood-sucking tsetse flies. Hardest hit were former residents of the over one-hundred and fifty strategically important islands that fringe Uganda's southern shores. Ten years after formal colonial indirect rule began, almost all islanders were, to quote colonial administrators at the time, “exterminated.” 

In the vernacular languages in use along Uganda’s southern littoral, the term for island was and still is ekizinga. Although ekizinga is a noun, it references an object (eki) that comes into being through the actions of rolling, coiling, twisting, and folding (zinga). Ekizinga are places materially and metaphorically manipulated into existence. Combining insights from previous scholarship in historical linguistics and ethnobiology with unpublished vernacular language texts and ethnographic interviews with littoral elders and contemporary healers, this paper considers islands as ekizinga to reexamine Uganda’s sleeping sickness epidemic. Rather than consider the containment of this epidemic as a triumph of colonial medicine – as most contemporary Ugandans and Euro-American scholars continue to do – this paper demonstrates that historical littoral residents actively manipulated littoral vegetation that would otherwise have created ideal habitat for tsetse flies into the conditions of their own abundance, simultaneously limiting the spatial extent of the disease. Early colonially imposed efforts to contain sleeping sickness by forcibly limiting movements between littorals, rendering all fishing illegal, and removing islanders from Uganda’s littorals, only made the situation worse.