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Viruses, science and African myths

By Victor C. Ariole

(…)The paradox, however, is that the more man conquers his space, the more he is confronted with the realisation that there is still a lot about the world that he is yet to know.
Science has helped man, but it has also failed man…
Nature continues to show man that there is something else that is beyond man…
Reuben Abati.

Africans need to refine and upgrade their disease management process and internationalise it as measles management had proved in AFRICA. Measles as learnt is caused by virus rubeola and it is also a contagious respiratory disease among other effects it causes.

It was declared eradicated in the world in the year 2000. However, in 2019 USA witnessed measles outbreak linked to travellers coming from Israel, Ukraine and the Philippines. Alarm was raised in the States of USA so affected and it was contained. Measles in Igbo is known as AKPATA. It is expected that at a given time of childhood stage it could affect a child and it could strengthen the child’s immune system, though vaccination is doing that now. The myth of Akpata had been circumscribed in a song women render when a new born baby arrives. In summary it goes thus in English: Any woman who cherishes having a baby should come out now that this baby has arrived for a dance known as childbearing dance. While dancing it, God will come as august guest and implant one in your womb. And as you are dancing it, mimic a scene of catching a baby coming out from the womb with your bare hands so that Akpata virus will spare the baby and the excreta of the baby could serve as immunity for you against bareness. I must confess that I don’t know the relationship between Akpata virus and immunity against bareness. However, there are lots to decipher about the content of that song.

The full details of the song and its meaning could not be far from letting out an understanding of the behaviour of Akpata virus. My mother seems to have a vague knowledge of it also even when I heard it as a child from her peers. Notwithstanding, further inquiry reveals that Akpata is a disease that must be spared any child coming out of the womb as it could be very disastrous. The question is: catching the baby with bare hands could it be an assurance of immunity for the baby as well as that of the women already immune from Akpata but must also be immune from bareness as a reciprocal result? One thing noticed in the appearance of the women is the painting of their body with what Igbos call URI (uli for Anambra Igbos). Though washable like henna seen in the north of Nigeria for tattooing, URI contains for sure what has not yet been explored. When eventually at any time in life both adults and children are infected by measles URI is used to paint all over their body as if it serves as virus repellent and it has always worked.

I observed the use of such likely substance on the body of young girls seen in Togo market (Asigame) who serve as load carriers. What one cannot understand about that is the half nudity of the girls and whether the market space is seen as virus laden, hence those ladies needed to be protected as they were made to carry any load the buyers and sellers pay them to carry. It is also observed among Akan tribes when the bride is to be handed to the bridegroom or after ocean birth before getting to the bridegroom; that is a sign of completely virus or disease free.

Even when one had not totally understood the biochemical nature of URI, a former USA Ambassador in Nigeria, Sanders, made a great arts’ exploration of it and it gained a wider appreciation but still leaves a gap in its biochemical value’s exploration.

For now, it strikes me, a priori, as a virus repellent. Further observation among the Igbos shows that whenever adults who were not infected during childhood get infected, they cover their body with URI, and on their own they declare themselves isolated without being compelled to do that unlike the current case of asking people to self-isolate. Anyone who sights such a person knows that they needed to distance themselves from such Uri-painted person, no stigma. That is a knowledge well encapsulated in African myth, is it not?

Like people are told now not to touch their eyes and that they should wash their hands frequently as Covid-19 ravages, if you are already covered with Uri washing your hands is not compulsory but minding your eyes is compulsory and it is done by dropping breast milk in it or sugarcane juice. Here again linking immunity with breast milk comes to be appreciated.

What is more, about Uri, is that our great grandmother that had a Polynesian outlook (to tell you that all people came from Africa, who lived up to 100 and above, before translating stayed through her life in a mud house always painted with Uri. It says something about virus repellent nature of Uri that science needed to probe. Afterall, science is driven by the probe of nature and testing and verifying usefulness of abundant matters and materials on planet earth and beyond for the wellbeing of humanity and not for the annihilation of humanity as some probes lead to. Science has helped man like mentioned by Abati, but there are lots of events dormant in African myths yet to be explored or subjected to testing for greater discoveries that could help for loftier achievement towards better living in the midst of quintillions of viruses and bacteria craving for human explorations and probing for greater perspectives of life which the brain is ignoring instead it goes on producing destructive ammunition awaiting fellow human beings to destroy in provocative wars and hunger inducing activities.

Robbing Uri informs of a priori disinfectant and social distancing without making noise about it. It is African. Sampling the excreta of a new born baby as it sprawls in your immune hands is also African though to be probed to know the benefit. For now, it is known that newly born survived Covid-19 and it could be could be a priori immunity as sung by African women. Breast milk also has proved to be helpful in preventing having the eyes infected toward blindness or winchlines of the eyes. Like one newspaper editorial put it as counter to always using Africans as guinea pig in all disease prevention testing, ‘the real problem has not been what racists and those who stuck on old stereotype think. The problem is what we as Africans do.’ So, wither African Myths and modern science in this humanity’s trying period?

Ariole is Professor of French and Francophone Studies, Department of European Languages and Integration Studies, University of Lagos, Akoka.

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