How Africa was a laboratory for Germany during the sleeping sickness epidemics


THE distorted view of the Western medical and science community towards Africa when it comes to diseases is rooted in a long history of racism and colonial conquest. For Western scientists, Africa was a living laboratory during the sleeping sickness epidemics of the early 20th century. The epidemics decimated the cheap African labour for the colonial capitalists who were hell bent on subjugating the continent for profits and racial superiority. The European colonizers had to intervene, and chief among them with extreme forms of intervention was Germany.

How Africa was used as a laboratory by German bacteriologist Robert Koch
Robert Koch. [Image: New Scientist]

Sleeping sickness, or trypanosomiasis, was rife across much of East and Central Africa. It is a parasitic disease which is transmitted by tsetse flies. A person who is infected has slow movement, apathy, joint pains, speech disorders, headaches, a fever, and drowsiness. When the pathogen passes the blood-brain barrier, it infects the central nervous system, resulting in a person becoming lethargic or insane, falling into a coma, and dying. It is clear that the European colonizers had to intervene so that their colonial projects would not go to waste, considering the devastating effects of sleeping sickness.

Africans had always been aware of sleeping sickness as evidenced in animals (animal trypanosomiasis or nagana). Cattle were the most affected among livestock, showing fevers and deteriorating health. Cattle herders in East Africa always avoided tsetse-infested areas. They would sometimes set fires to bushes to clear the area of flies and of warthogs, bush pigs and other wild animals that hosted the tsetse flies.

In the precolonial era, epidemics of sleeping sickness would break out, but the ancestors had found ways to strike a balance between two ecosystems – the human and domestic on one hand, and the natural and wild on the other. They knew how to avoid tsetse-infested areas. This balance was destroyed by the abrupt social changes that colonization came with. The invading Europeans caused great upheaval regarding the ecological balance that existed, causing diseases and famines.

In 1901, a severe epidemic broke out in Uganda, especially along the shores and on the islands of Lake Victoria. By 1905, over 200,000 inhabitants (one third of the region’s population) had died. The epidemic spread to Sudan and German East Africa (Tanzania). Much of equatorial Africa was not spared from the epidemics too. The increased trade and immigration that colonization brought caused massive demographical changes and has been attributed as one of the leading causes in the outbreaks of these epidemics.

At this period, groundbreaking medical and scientific discoveries were being advanced by the industrialized European countries. With the outbreak of epidemics, European countries worked around the clock to ensure that this epidemic would be put to an end.

This was motivated by two reasons. The first was on humanitarian grounds, as informed by “benevolent condescension and outright racism.” Europeans believed it was their “moral” duty to save Africans. The second was scientific grounds. A “cure” had to be found (for the greater good of the medical and scientific community).

Germany sent its scientist to East Africa, Robert Koch, to find a cure by running “concentration camps” to this effect. He “treated” East Africans in these concentration camps with atoxyl, which contains arsenic. Although it had been touted as the least toxic medicines of the time, it was known to cause blindness, pain and even death. Other European colonizers were also sending their scientific teams for missions in Africa to end sleeping sickness.

Robert Koch is a venerated figure in German, European and global medical and scientific circles. And this is because of his innovations regarding his research on cholera and tuberculosis. In 1905, Koch was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine after his research on tuberculosis. He established a causative relationship between a microbe and a disease. 

This is what is taught to biology students all over the world, cementing Koch’s eternal legacy in scientific spheres. His name in Germany is a respected one, with the German federal institute responsible for disease control and prevention named after him (the Robert Koch Institute). It is at the forefront of the country’s battle against Covid-19.

In all this praise and respect, little is said about his experiments on living humans in East Africa. Little is said about the concentration camps he ran – camps that solidified colonialism (even if this did not seem immediate to him). It was Koch who designed, set up, and personally ran medical concentration camps in East Africa. He did not elicit the consent of the people, meaning he relied on the prevailing atmosphere of force at the time. This only implied suffering and distress for East Africans, in as much as they were told it is for their good.

While the medicines were being developed in Europe, and tested on animals, this was not sufficient. Calls for tests on humans gained traction, but at the same time these tests were considered too dangerous to be conducted on Europeans themselves. In Africa, colonial authorities gave their express and tacit assent to the tests on humans, for they cared little about such implications to Africans.

Isolating the sick and experimenting on them was Koch’s modus operandi. Using a range of arsenic-based medicines, atoxyl was the least toxic, but was found to cause partial or complete blindness in up to 20% of the patients. By May 1908, villagers fled to avoid the authority of the colonial authorities and the local youth recruited to bring the villagers to the concentration camps. 

The young men (from the king’s court) were also known as “gland-feelers” for they were employed to palpate the lymph glands of villagers and bring those with swollen glands to a camp at Kigarama. Villagers feared the treatment they would receive in the camps. People became convinced that the reign of atoxyl was more harmful than it was effective.

Koch left East Africa in October 1907, and by then, three sleeping sickness concentration camps – the name he gave these research centers himself – had been established in German East Africa. Koch had convinced the German colonial authorities to set up more of these after the one he had set up at Bugula when he arrived. There were also five camps in German West Africa (present day Togo and Cameroon).

At the Bugula camp, patients were compelled to wear wooden identification tags around their necks or wrists and subjected to a litany of dehumanizing assessments. Their ears, eyes, and limbs were constantly with needles to extract “sick material/krankenmaterial” from their bodies. This data was also shared with the British colonial authorities who were also finding answers to the confusion that was sleeping sickness.

Experiments that were perceived to be too dangerous for European peoples were done on Africans with unflinching brazenness. This phenomenon concretized racial hierarchies and the belief that Africa is a testing ground for new medicines. The idea that Africans are regular test subjects, was reinforced by the ideas of racial superiority couched under colonial conquests. This history shows us the solidification of “racial hierarchies of experimentation.”

Western scientists and doctors still believe that Africa is a testing ground for all sorts of medicines. This was evidenced when two French doctors once suggested that the vaccine for Covid-19 should be tested first in Africa. 

People were apoplectic when these statements were uttered but on closer introspection, this view is shaped by the colonial history of science and medicine. As seen here by Koch’s (and the rest of Europe’s) approach to finding new medicines. The same was done with syphilis on black males in the United States.

The precedent that Koch set is that different rules in science and medicine apply to Europe and Africa. He may have wanted the good for science, but his methodology was rooted in “colonial hierarchies.” 

These dark chapters of history must not be wished away in the modern quests to find new medicine. It should be made clear enough, beyond any reasonable doubt, that Africa is no longer a testing ground for Western scientists and doctors.

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