Epidemics And Public Health In Late Colonial SomalilandThe complex interaction between socio-economic, demographic, environmental, and human behavior also played a key role in the gradual increase in the incidence of other diseases such as relapsing fever from 1946 to 1950. Relapsing fever is a “true famine disease” because “mortality varies inversely with living conditions.”138 It achieves a high level of endemicity in areas where the standards of housing, hygiene, and nutrition are low. In that respect, it is the “most epidemic of the epidemic diseases.”139 The disease had an “endemic focus in Ethiopia, making excursions into neighboring Sudan”140 and Somaliland. In Somaliland, it was first diagnosed in 1913 and reached an epidemic level in the mid-1930s in the towns.141 It declined in 1938-39. The vector of the disease was re-introduced into the country during the war, due to increased traffic between Somaliland and Ethiopia. The disease always followed the highway of commerce, refugees, migrants, and armies from Ethiopia into Somaliland. In the 1940s, it reached an epidemic level in Hargeysa, Burao, and Borama. In general, the disease did not affect the rural folk: it had always been a “serious disease” only “at larger centers of population,”142 and specifically in livestock markets, slums, and mosques where poor travelers and migrants slept the night.143

Epidemics And Public Health In Late Colonial SomalilandDespite the frequent occurrence of various endemic and epidemic diseases, their impact on the population was less severe than in the early colonial period. The demographic history of Somaliland has not yet been given scholarly attention. Generally, demographic changes in Somaliland during the colonial period followed a pattern familiar to historians of the continent. The population declined in the early colonial period, but “rapidly grew after World War Two.”144 The evidence for Somaliland as for the continent is at best sketchy because vital statistics on birth, death, and migration, are not available. No census was successfully undertaken and completed in Somaliland, because of the “strong aversion of the Somalis to ‘numbering of the people.'”145 The rural folk particularly distrusted the “numbering of people” because they viewed it as the first step in the imposition of direct taxation. The raw materials of historical demography, then, are unavailable to the student of Somali history.146 But the lack of vital statistics has not deterred historians of the continent from mapping the general trends in demographic changes. Often they have been forced to reconstruct historical “demography from scanty sources” keeping in mind by-the-by that all sources represent “the shadows of objects rather than the objects themselves.”147 All vital statistics, as Fetter states, are “reflection of the demographic process it purports to measure.”148

The growth of the population of Somaliland in the post-war period could be gleaned from various sources. The 1945 report on pauperism, for instance, noted without presenting any figures, the “increase in population” as a result of the prevailing “peaceful state of affairs” in the country.149 Before the war, according to the 1948 colonial report, “the population was estimated at about 350,000. More recently it had been put at 700,000.”150 The 1951 colonial survey used the same figures.151 Only John Hunt made an attempt at a systematic survey of demographic trends. But even Hunt did not collect vital statistics. Rather he relied on tribal estimates. The use of tribal estimates as a form of population statistics was tried in the 1930s, but produced no usable results.152 Hunt was nonetheless able to produce numbers that were generally accepted by colonial administrators. The main focus of his research was the “dia-paying group”–the smallest tribal unit that shared the payment of blood money. “Somali society,” he argued, “is based on this group.”153 He estimated the number of people that constituted each dia-paying group, and from that figure extrapolated the total number of the clan, and concluded that the population of the country doubled in the late colonial period. In 1944, he stated that the population grew from 350,000 to 720,000. In his final and official publication, however, he reduced the number of the dia-paying groups of the Esa and Gadabursi, by distinguishing between those who were “British protected,” and those who resided in Ethiopia. This reduced the population of the country in his estimate from 720,000 to 640,000.


Epidemics And Public Health In Late Colonial SomalilandHunt’s figure was widely accepted and circulated in all colonial reports, and even in scholarly papers.154 They were accepted not because the figures were scientific, but because there was a general and visible increase in the population of the country. Besides, they were the only figures available that used a methodology–albeit a weak one–to estimate the population. In addition, there were no massive wars, or pandemics, or epidemics that lasted for a long period and caused high levels of mortality. Even the 1943, 1953-1954 and 1959 smallpox epidemics were benign in comparison to smallpox epidemics in the early colonial period because people acquired immunity to the disease by the late colonial period as a result of earlier infection or vaccination. In sum, the ending in the late colonial period of political instability, colonial pacification wars, the constant movement of armies and refugees across the frontiers, the people’s acquisition of immunity to some strains of the diseases, and public health measures were the key factors that mitigated the demographic impact of the diseases.

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