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In The Politics of Disease Control. Sleeping Sickness in Eastern Africa, 1890-1920 (Ohio University Press, 2019), Mari K. Webel tells a history of colonial...

In The Politics of Disease Control. Sleeping Sickness in Eastern Africa, 1890-1920 (Ohio University Press, 2019), Mari K. Webel tells a history of colonial interventions among three communities of the Great Lakes region of East Africa. At the dawn of the twentieth century, Eastern African societies faced a range of social, political and economic challenges, many of which were connected to the establishment of British and German colonial regimes. In the midst of these, African societies experienced an epidemic outbreak of human African Trypanosomiasis, commonly known as “sleeping sickness.” The epidemic posed a serious threat to the economic prospects of colonial regimes who felt it necessary to authorize and fund large scale campaigns aimed at researching a treatment that could cure and stop the spread of the disease. Dr. Webel locates these colonial interventions in the context of the rich intellectual worlds that Great Lakes’ communities used to make sense of experiences of misfortune and illness. She argues that only by understanding the concepts and strategies that Africans had historically used to navigate challenging times, can we explain how and whether they chose to interact with the health efforts promoted by colonial authorities. The book highlights the long, largely neglected, and mostly unsuccessful, quest to eradicate or treat human African trypanosomiasis. It explains the impact that early campaigns to contain the disease had on the rationale and design of subsequent public health interventions in other parts of Africa, and how colonial narratives continue to affect modern research agendas into tropical diseases. Moreover, the book underscores the importance of paying attention to local, cultural and historical factors in the design of any public health campaign.


Esperanza Brizuela-Garcia is Associate Professor of History at Montclair State University. She specializes in modern intellectual history of Africa, historiography, World history and Philosophy of History.  She is the co-author of African Histories: New Sources and New Techniques for Studying African Pasts (Pearson, 2011).