That scientific research and medical practice did exist in pre colonial Africa, and present day Uganda at that, baffles many- not only Euro-centric skeptics, but also their wannabe African cousins as well. What is even more remarkable is that evidence of this rare feat is recorded, not by Africans, but by Europeans! Let us take an example of pre colonial Bunyoro. There is evidence of outstanding medical excellence- at least judging by the international standards of the time- in this supposedly remote area inhabited by a ‘primitive’ people.
I will not mention, as has the distinguished historian Shane Doyle that clinical tests that have shown that their cures for eczema and post measles bloody diarrhea were more effective than Western medicines, or that their herbs have been shown to control schizophrenia. I will not even make mention of evidence of advanced hygiene control to prevent stomach infections- I wont! I will only make mention of the more subtle bits of their medical excellence.
R.W. Felkin, at the time (1879) a medical student and missionary recorded a caesarean operation carried out in Bunyoro. The details, published in the Edinburgh Medical Journal 1884 xxix , 922-930, are startling. The surgical team comprised 3men; the surgeon washed the mother’s womb and his hands with banana wine (nguuli) and then water.The mother had been half intoxicated with the same wine and was laying on a bed. The surgeon made a cutting into the stomach and the baby was gotten out. The wound was sewn using iron spikes, sparingly used and tied together with skin. At various times the assistants helped with pulling out the baby, holding the intestines in place and holding her ankles and placing on the wound an absorbant grass mat. Needless to say, the patient made a full recovery after 11 days. Interestingly, at this time in the UK, caesarean operations, when they did occur, were extremely rare for theyb were considered major and there was considerable animosity towards them. Felkin went on to become the adviser to the Lancet on tropical medicine, and it wouldnt be unsafe to take his account as accurate. Some have expressed skepticism about his report on the operation but they have not expressed the same as regards the rest of his work, which is curious, considering that he translated many of the works of Emin Pasha, from German to English. In any case it would seem extraordinary that he could concoct such a story which would result in the praise a ‘primitive’ people and even take back with him the surgical knife, which has near celebrity status in the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum in the UK.
These were carried out in precolonial Bunyoro to protect babies and even adults from syphilis. The doctors, abafumu, argued that when the ‘virus’ was introduced to the infants’ bodies, it reduced their chances of catching the disease in adulthood. Later research showed that exposure to the disease in infancy indeed significantly reduced ones chances of contracting the disease in later life. Clearly, the bafumu were ahead of their time. As is to be expected, they were condemned by the colonial administrators and missionaries as well as converts- the latter with an an amazing cry-more- than- the- bereaved enthusiasm. The importance of vaccinations needn’t be emphasised in modern medicine.
It would be surprising for a people to attain such a high level of skill as result of a flash in the pan- there must surely be some form of order, organisation, training and apprenticeship to achieve this. If the above examples arent indicative of any form of preparation and organisation, perhaps this should. In 1902, when sleeping sickness was causing near tsunami-like death tolls to both coloniser and colonised in equal measure, information spread that there was an itinerant Munyoro doctor who was curing the disease. The man, Yangoma, told the colonial administrator- the tax collector for Busoga, who later told his boss, the commissioner, that following the sleeping sickness outbreak of 1886-7, he (Yangoma) was commisioned by Omukama Kabalega, to ‘make experiments in the interests of science’ -Grant’s words to the commissioner on 30th May 1902 [PRO/FO/2/590], and he was ‘successful in procuring a cure’. But in order to belittle whatever result the endeavour had produced, Grant made it known to the commissioner, in no uncertain that the instruction to look for a cure was ‘more probably from selfish motives’ of the Omukama! It ought to be noted that in their endeavours to cure disease, the bafumu separated their experiments from religious practice, so that this can be properly called scientific, and that the outcomes were results of repeated and tested displays.
Interestingly, there seems to be no evidence that this medical finesse was achieved as a result of exposure from the outside world, for much of the interior was cut off from Europe until the latter part of the 19th century, and that even then, the supposition that the Europeans who came could have passed on the knowledge is unreasonable, for Felkin himself was amazed and in any case it was the riches in Africa that caught the colonialists’ fancy. Tragically, thanks to persecution from the invaders, much of this information, hitherto passed on from senior to junior in orderly fashion, was lost. At a time when many of our hospitals on one hand and death traps on the other have a conspicuously striking similarity, such loss ought to be bemoaned
Lastly, the little I have found out about medical practice in precolonial Uganda is largely from Bunyoro, but I would like to convince myself that among other peoples in the country that is the pearl of Africa, there was certainly evidence of medical advancement. It may not, I would like to think, be a waste of time to dig into them.
by Mpuga Rukidi