Tsetse Fly: How African Science contained it and European invasion Escalated it

A Tsetse fly is a tropical insect that occurs only in Africa and transmits sleeping sickness (African trypanosomiasis) in humans and a similar disease called Nagana in domestic animals. The infection can lead to death in humans and has killed millions of cattle, reshaping the landscape and economy in some parts of Africa. While many books and stories have been written especially by western authors about this disease, these writings hardly mention how Africans developed and accumulated the body of scientific knowledge that formed the basis for subsequent efforts to control or destroy the disease. They hardly mention the role the Europeans played in the rapid spread of the disease all over Africa or the inhumane approach applied to combat the disease.

Africans lived in pastoral lands, not jungles

Most people think all of Sub-Sahara Africa was all wild jungle before Europeans arrived: all bush teeming with wildebeest and elephants, lions and zebras as portrayed on television in wildlife documentaries filmed in the continent’s many national parks. As Fred Pearce put it in his piece, “Inventing Africa” in the New Scientist, “that vision is largely a myth. Pre-European Africa wasn’t like that. The great parks are, in truth, as artificial as an English country garden…Before, sophisticated kingdoms thrived, boasting navies, art and music, elaborate court etiquette and international trade. After, there was the bush.” The Great civilizations, empires and Kingdoms that existed before the arrival of the Europeans like any civilization kept large farms and herds of cattle in open lands and didn’t live in thick buses and woodlands among wild animals.

Africans understood Tsetse fly and had it contained

Before the arrival of the Europeans in Africa, Africans were well aware that a closely related disease, trypanosomiasis, caused fever and a progressive deterioration in the health of livestock, especially cattle. They knew tsetse fly lives among wild animals in lowland tropical bush and It likes lush, extensive vegetation. According to John Ford, a specialist in the tsetse fly problem writing in the 1960s, Africans before the colonial era had established a rough equilibrium between two ecosystems, the human and domestic on the one hand, and the natural and wild on the other. Africans, whose ancestors had lived on that continent for hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of years, knew the habitats of tsetse flies and how to avoid them. They kept cattle on the plains which kept the tsetse in check by grazing the grass sward very close and preventing tree seedlings and shrubs from growing more than a few centimetres high.

Read: Opportunities for Cattle Ranching Around Lagos and other Cities in Southern Nigeria

They also had developed a diverse set of practices to combat tsetse fly. For example, As MIT Associate Professor Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga explained in his book, The Mobile Workshop: The Tsetse Fly and African Knowledge Production, cattle herders in East Africa “avoided tsetse-infested areas or set fire to bushes in order to clear areas of flies and of wart-hogs, bush-pigs, and other wild animals whose blood the flies fed on. They used late-season forest burning to expose the fly to predators; moved herds through the fly-infested stretches at night while the insect was inactive; strategically located their settlements to neutralize the insect’s threat or turn it into a weapon against their human enemies; cleared bushes and felled trees to create buffer zones between the fly-infested wildlife areas and human- and livestock-inhabited areas; and developed inoculations using live or dead tsetse fly. Many of these methods were appropriated by the early Europeans in the continent or at the very least used their basic principles as starting points for their scientific research” on Tsetse fly and trypanosomiasis.

How Europeans spread Rinderpest and Tsetse fly across Africa

The equilibrium that has been maintained for thousands of years was shattered by the invading Europeans, causing a series of ecological crises, including famines and epidemics of Rinderpest, sleeping sickness, jiggers, and others. Italian soldiers who invaded Eritrea in 1887 in a quest to colonise of Africa introduced to the continent a deadly cattle virus that causes a disease called Rinderpest. The disease spread fast across Africa as no native animal had a trace of immunity to it. According to Pearce, it spread through Tigre in Ethiopia and then followed ox trails south along the Rift Valley and west across Sahel herding routes via Sudan and Chad into West Africa. It took just five years to reach the Atlantic, and within a decade it had arrived in South Africa. By the end of the century, most of the cattle in southern Africa had died, a toll estimated at 5.5 million. This pandemic has been called the greatest natural calamity ever to befall Africa and yet many people are not aware of this history. “To this day, hardly anyone outside academia is aware of the calamity, even though—as with the slave trade—it was the Europeans who reaped the rewards,” wrote Pearce.

Read: Drones Deliver Sterile Tse -Tse Flies to Tackle Sleeping Sickness in Ethiopia

According to Pearce, the disease ripped apart cattle-rearing kingdoms across the continent, opened the door to the colonial invasion, and left behind a depopulated, tsetse-ridden bushland. Now without cattle and other grazing animals, the woody vegetation grows fast. “Within a season or two the pasture is transformed into woody grassland and shady thorn-bush thickets, creating ideal conditions for the spread of the tsetse fly,” says writer and historian John Reader. Pearce added that after the Rinderpest epidemic passed, wild animal populations rebounded much faster than the cattle, providing an animal host for the tsetse once more. The flies and the sleeping sickness they carried, in turn, kept humans and their cattle from returning to graze down the bush that was springing up. Sleeping sickness was unknown in East Africa until the ecological disruption caused by the Rinderpest epidemic. But after its arrival in the early 20th century, it caused millions of deaths, says Keith Sones, director of the Nairobi-based consultancy StockWatch. An estimated 4 million people died in Uganda alone.

European’s inhumane methods

The Europeans were faced with the problem of tsetse fly infestation when they took over Africa as a larger part of the region had been taken over by bush and wild animals, but they increased the tsetse scourge by taking over the healthy lands the natives already made tsetse fly-free and forcefully resettling them to the fly-infested margins of land. The resettlement schemes increased human contact with tsetse fly and brought about major epidemics of sleeping sickness that wiped out some two-thirds of the population of what is now Uganda.

The Europeans then took an environmental approach to combat the epidemic. Unlike the age-long African approach of containing the flies centred on the strategic deployments within the environment and careful siting of settlements, avoiding the potentially pestiferous insect’s territory, the Europeans adopted an inhumane approach that involved the resettlement of everyone away from the fly-infested lands and destroying the breeding places to eliminate the flies and the wildlife carrying the pathogen. As  Mavhunga further explained, the Europeans were intent on “destroying species they designated vermin beings, and by any means necessary — slaughtering the host and food source animals, massacring whole forests, poisoning the environment with deadly pesticides whose environmental pollution consequences we are yet to study and understand, including possible links to cancers.”

The Europeans later forbid human activities in the once inhabited lands: forbidding fishing and the sale or possession of fish, and the hunting and gathering of firewood in the infected areas. This caused great hardship among the natives who lived and farmed near the lake and among the many fishermen who provided one of the few sources of protein for the population. As the farmers abandoned their lands, bushes invaded their abandoned fields and so did tsetse flies. The Europeans further help increased the tsetse fly population. They converted the once occupied lands to massive game reserves for trophy hunting, thereby increasing the populations of wild animals that serve as natural reservoirs of the Trypanosoma parasite. These game reserves: the Serengeti and Masai Mara, Tsavo and Selous, Kafue, Okavango, Kruger and the rest are still heavily infested with tsetse fly-infested till this day.

Read: How Western Countries Steal From Africa by Patenting Her Natural Resources


2 thoughts on “Tsetse Fly: How African Science contained it and European invasion Escalated it

  1. Hi,
    I just read your piece with a sense of horror, having read Prof Mavhunga’s book. You do not acknowledge that he is the source of all your writing until the very end. Please acknowledge that immediately or take down this piece. It is called plagiarism: taking someone else’s ideas and passing them off as your own or Pearce’s. I have alerted the professor to the existence of this article; it infringes copyright clearly.


  2. We do not usually respond to an anonymous comment. However, your accusation is wrong as Prof Mavhunga’s book is only one of the sources (two paragraphs) and not “the source of all your writing” as you falsely claimed. Prof Mavhunga and Pierce have been properly credited in paragraphs that mentioned their works. Pierce’s name came up first as his work was mentioned first, that doesn’t make him the source of all my writing either. In order to make a point please do not discredit other authors of their work.


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