2. Epidemics

The northern Somali country was not a `virgin soil’ (Crosby, 1976a,b) for epidemics in the pre-colonial era, because there existed a well-established and ancient cultural and commercial contact with some of the world’s most potent sources of plagues, Arabia, India and Ethiopia. The Somali people were familiar with most of the major diseases that plagued humankind in all continents. They were familiar, for instance, with smallpox (furuq), tuberculosis (qaaxo), malaria (duumo) and venereal diseases such as gonorrhea (jabti). Cholera was probably a recent disease. It is called in Somali `dacuun’. However, the etymology of the word is `tac’un’, which is the Arabic word for plague (Dols, 1977). Overall the people acquired immunity for local strains of diseases such as smallpox and malaria. Moreover, three factors acted as a shield against the introduction of new strains of contagious diseases from the coast to the interior plateau where the great majority of the people lived. These factors were the lack of large urban centers with large permanent populations and the temporal and spatial limitations on contact with the outside world.

Temporally, the contact with the outside world was limited to the trading season from October to March on the coastal ports. This was the season in which Berbera became the center of commerce. Although other ports such as Hiis, Mait, Las Korey, Zeila and Shalcow were also important centers of commerce during the trading season, their trade was very limited and was overshadowed by that of Berbera. More often than not, these minor trading centers functioned as ports of exports and imports for petty Somali traders and thus had little international connections. Berbera was, therefore, the most likely source of epidemics for the northern Somali country. During the trading season, its population grew dramatically from less than one hundred to over twenty thousand. Traders from Persia, India, Arabia, and Ethiopia congregated in the town. Once the trading season ended, however, the town was abandoned. The population of Berbera, therefore, was not permanent, but seasonal. This acted as a shield against the spread of contagious diseases, except in the trading season. And even when a contagious disease appeared in Berbera, its spread into the interior plateau was hindered by the unbroken chain of mountains that ran parallel to the coastal strip for three hundred miles. The mountains made travel for sick persons extremely tedious and impossible. By the same token, the deep Haud and the slow mode of transportation acted as a screen against the penetration of contagion from Ethiopia into the interior plateau.

Finally, the interior of the northern Somali country lacked large urban centers with a large permanent population that could sustain contagious diseases in endemic form. All the towns were concentrated on the coastal areas. In the interior, there were only the ruined towns, which were abandoned for unknown reasons during the medieval era (Curle, 1937). Sheikh Madar, for instance, established Hargeysa, in the late 1890s as a religious order. It became a township after it was made into an administrative center at the beginning of the century. In 1921, its built environment consisted of a small number of huts and “one stone building where an Arab… kept his store of rice, dates, colored cloth and scarves”. Half a mile from the center of the town “stood the Court House and half a mile further, the Police lines and the bungalow of the District Commissioner” (Perham, 1922). The built environment of the town expanded in the 1930s and particularly in the post-1935 period when economic developments led to the physical expansion of the town. None of the other interior towns such as Burao, or Erigavo or Borama, existed in the nineteenth century. They were all founded as administrative centers during the early colonial period. Erigavo was founded in 1925. Burao became an important administrative and strategic center during the struggle between Sayyid Muhammad Abdulla and the British from 1900 to 1920 and in particular after the establishment of the Somaliland Camel Corps in 1912. The town was the headquarters for the corps. As pastoralists, moreover, the people were dispersed over the land. Hence there were never any concentration of population in the interior. The absence of large, or even small, urban centers obviated the conditions necessary for the spread of diseases. Diseases such as smallpox, for instance, can “achieve endemicity only in large and, often, cosmopolitan populations, where it could pass in unbroken sequence through the bodies of travelers from areas free from the malady and through the bodies of the immunologically innocent newborn.” (Crosby, 1993a,b). Contagious diseases in the northern Somali country were thus rare. And epidemics were rarer. The historical evidence is at best sketchy. There are no written sources by Somalis which give us an idea about the nature of health and disease in the country in the pre-colonial era. There are only the reports of travelers, explorers and British administrators of Aden who made periodic visits to the coastal towns, in particular to Berbera. Their reports are our best source in the reconstruction of the disease environment in the northern Somali country. These sources are unconventional. However, in the reconstruction of African history, we are by necessity often forced to use unconventional sources (Vansina, 1985; Zeleza, 1993).


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