Colonial culture a 'cause' of illness

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Steven Rubert

Doctors in Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) viewed illness among the whites as having biological causes that could be treated scientifically. Disease among Africans, however, was assumed to be caused by the way they lived - "the fetid atmosphere of the dirty, dingy huts in which they shut themselves up tightly from sunset to sunrise," in the words of a Methodist missionary at the time. This dual standard, said Steven Rubert, is an aspect of the political ecology of health care.

"In opposition to a traditional epidemiological perspective which focuses on the discovery of a specific bacteria or virus as the causative agent of disease, this political ecology study views disease as resulting from the changing social, economic and political systems which developed as part of the formation of colonial society in Zimbabwe," said Rubert, a Research Fellow and associate professor of history at OSU.

Rubert is working on a book aimed at defining the dual perspectives on disease, grounding those views in early socioeconomic conditions in Zimbabwe, and analyzing how the differing perspectives were reflected in the two distinct health care systems that developed during the colonial period.

"A formal health care system, funded by the white settler government, supported programs that were primarily beneficial to the European community and only marginally directed toward African health. A second, more informal system developed by Africans to deal with their changing patterns of health associated with the altered socioeconomic conditions brought on by white colonial rule.

"The African voice on this issue, for the most part, has not been heard. However, some recent scholarship indicates that many Africans during the colonial period associated disease with the occupation of their lands and their increasing employment by European-owned mines and farms." At the same time, said Rubert, "Settlers most often thought they should be protected from diseased Africans through the application of laws restricting African residence and movement in the colony."

In Rubert's view, non-medical concerns, such as a need for cheap labor and the desire to create a white settler colony, are mainly what drove the codification of relations with native Africans in Rhodesia, with results that fed directly into a social system that must itself be considered as "causal" when assessing disease.