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Viral Videos and Infectious Disease–Healing in Northern Uganda

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Invisible Children’s video, Kony 2012 recently went viral with over 100 million views, earning both praise and criticism from Ugandans. A vast amount of complexity surrounds the Lords Resistance Army (LRA), and it has been suggested to use the attention as a platform to raise awareness about another issue in the region, Nodding disease. It seems relevant to move the discussion forward by examining the different healing approaches Ugandans have used regarding the LRA and Nodding disease.

It is impossible to give a singular explanation or cause for a war but a useful starting point (pdf) is to understand the socio-political environment within which the LRA emerged. The LRA’s origins in northern Uganda can be traced back to when Museveni seized power from General Tito Okello Lutwa in 1986. At the time, the Acholi population within northern Uganda believed Museveni’s power could lead to their persecution.

Spirituality is an important component of Acholi culture and Alice Auma Lakwena’s formation of the Holy Spirit Movement (HSM) reflected both their political and religious sentiment. Although it received tremendous support from the Acholi population, the HSM was defeated in 1987. Following their loss, Joseph Kony also claimed to possess spiritual powers and formed the LRA. However, his claims were rejected by the community and its leaders. Since then, Kony has manipulated the interpretation of traditional Acholi spiritual beliefs and also used Biblical verses out of context to justify violence towards his opposition.

As with others who have distorted religion to incite violence, Kony is often depicted as a one-dimensional madman. Yet, the LRA has secured strategic partnerships with militia opposition to Uganda’s government and managed to sustain itself for over 25 years. Joseph Kony presently remains at large with the LRA continuing its operations in the Central African Republic, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Different strategies aimed at his capture have been ongoing; from action kits aimed at raising awareness to government intervention, debate surrounds as to whether these efforts do more harm than good. While the LRA’s origins may be entrenched in mysticism, critics contend it is Invisible Children’s narrative that is consumed with magic.

Calm After The Storm: Uganda has transitioned into an area of peace

The majority of the current attention has been focused Kony; however, he is not the sole perpetrator of crimes committed. Even if the efforts to capture Kony are successful, the loss of a leader doesn’t necessarily signify an end to the problems. Instead, it marks the beginning to a new set of questions and issues. As history has demonstrated throughout Africa and other parts of the world, the prosecution of war criminals is complex, invoking passion and differing beliefs on the best way to move forward.

Since former combatants have been returning to the region for years, there has been a continuous effort to determine the appropriate course of action. Within Uganda, both international and traditional Acholi methods of justice have been used in the region. Some traditional methods include compensation and ceremonies such as mato oput, a tradition involving drinking bitter herb and nyouo tong gweno, in which an egg is stepped on to symbolize a new beginning. These are believed to benefit the victim, the perpetrator and the community.

Making Peace With The Past: No longer focused on survival, Ugandans decide how to move forward

Both international and traditional models of justice have their strengths and weaknesses (pdf). International models have been critiqued for focusing solely on punishment while excluding education and rehabilitation; both are also important components of restoration in Acholi culture. However, traditional Acholi methods aren’t without flaws, either. For example, compensation becomes difficult when an individual is simultaneously a perpetrator and victim. Further, poverty and limited resources has resulted in an inability to procure materials necessary to perform certain rituals. This is a reminder that through devastation, tradition can become another casualty of war.

Indiscriminate Victims: Nodding disease has also claimed children as fatalities in northern Uganda

Nodding disease also has affected children in the some of the same regions as the LRA. A large amount of uncertainty surrounds the disease. It is thought to have originated in the 1960s in Tanzania. Although a black-fly-borne parasite that causes river blindness has also been present in all of the areas where outbreaks have occurred, it is also unclear what causes it.

The disease affects children aged 5 though 15 and is named for the head nodding that occurs during seizures-like episodes. The seizures can be triggered by food or a shift in temperature. Nodding disease can stunt growth, cause mental retardation, and is often fatal. There is no known cure, although anti-epileptic medication may be effective in treatment.

When the source and treatment are unknown, fear and stigma can surround a disease. Much like the myths surrounding HIV, Nodding disease has been attributed to supernatural causes such as witchcraft and curses. When faced with the challenge of treating of Nodding disease, Ugandans have used both medical doctors and traditional healers. Some might seek help from a hospital first; if that is unsuccessful they may turn to traditional medicine as an alternative. Others use traditional medicine as a primary source of care as it is sometimes more accepted and accessible.

Deep Rooted Knowledge? Indigenous herbs and plants are often incorporated into traditional healing

Approximately 80 percent of Ugandans rely on traditional medicine. Although there is a tendency to dismiss traditional medicine as snake oils, there have been efforts made to regulate and standardize (pdf) the use of herbal medicine within Uganda. The field of traditional medicine and indigenous knowledge has been recognized and explored by researchers and organizations including the World Health Organization and The World Bank. While traditional healers are seen as integral to local culture within Uganda, the potential value of its application for Nodding disease is unknown.

As anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski noted, magic is to be expected and generally to be found whenever man comes to an unbridgeable gap, a hiatus in his knowledge or in his powers of practical control, and yet has to continue in his pursuit. The causes of war and disease do not stem from magic, nor will they be solved by a magic bullet or magic pill. Instead, the process of healing can be advanced by fully understanding an issue’s origins and the environment that sustains it.

Photos: courtesy of Amy Karr, taken in Gulu, Pabbo and Sipi Falls, Uganda.

Layla Eplett About the Author: Layla Eplett writes about the anthropology of food. She has a Masters in Social Anthropology of Development from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies and loves getting a taste of all kinds of culture--gastronomic, traditional, and sometimes accidentally, bacterial. Find her at Fare Trade. Follow on Twitter @LaylaEplett.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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