Divination and Science: The Politics of Malaria
by Dilman Dila
Ugandan sci-fi film maker Dilman Dila brings us to the backstage of his latest movie Akoota, sharing with us the personal stories and socio-political motives behind his project while interrogating the complex relation between local knowledge systems and the colonial trauma.
Divination as a Science
Last year, I started work on a short science fiction film, Akoota (pronounced Akora). It tackles a theme that I first wrote about in a short story back in the early 2000s, The Leafy Man. The story was conceived after I had read about two Indian scientists who wanted to use gene modification to eradicate malaria. Around that time, I was falling sick on a monthly basis, testing positive for malaria every time I visited the doctor. Each new treatment I received was more expensive than the previous one. Then, one day, the doctor told me, “I’m not going to treat you this time,” even though I had all of the symptoms; headache, general body weakness, high fever, vomiting, pain in my back and joints. I wondered why he would not give me medicine. “Your lab says I have malaria,” I said in confusion. “Yes,” the doctor replied. “But I won’t give you any medicine. You’ll develop resistance. Rest, it might just be fatigue.”
So, I rested, drank plenty of fluids, and indeed I got better.
The Politics of Malaria
Surprised by the effective reaction of my body, I started to ask questions, and discovered a scam to profit from selling malaria drugs. As it happened to me, fatigue, among other factors, can induce malaria-like symptoms, but rather than tell patients the truth about fatigue, many medics prefer to treat it with anti-malaria drugs. Furthermore, incompetency, overworked lab technicians, or faulty equipment can sometimes give the wrong diagnosis, thus compounding the situation. The drugs themselves are developed by big pharmaceutical companies and their prices are always increasing. By saying this I am not implying that ‘Big Pharma’ encourages small clinics to deceive patients, but they have contributed to a system where it is often more convenient and profitable to prescribe medicine than tell patients the truth.
This system pushes for new ways to combat malaria, one of which is the releasing of GMO mosquitoes into the wild. This raises many questions, the first of which is unknown and unintended ecological consequences. There are questions surrounding corporate ownership of biological organisms and for-profit interventions in public healthcare. In Uganda Target Malaria, a non-profit research consortium, is at the forefront of this strategy. Amongst its funders it is possible to find renowned people like Bill and Melinda Gates who, when announcing a pledge to fight malaria, did it the with UK’s Minister of Finance: What does that say about their intentions?
Key questions need to be asked regarding race. As we find bias in Artificial Intelligence, the same could happen in gene modification. Then there is self-determination. Some people claim that Target Malaria has links to the US Military, or that some of the scientists associated with the foundation receive funding from the Pentagon, which has been unclear regarding recent interest in Africa. Though benign at the moment, it would not be so far-fetched to say gene drive technology might serve sinister military purposes later on.
“It is not the only approach to ending malaria,” Dr. Jonathan Kayondo, who heads Target Malaria’s program in Uganda, told me when I visited him in his office at the Uganda Virus Research Institute. “It is one of the many approaches that the government of Uganda is looking at.” And he added, “No single solution can defeat malaria. Rather, many solutions working together is the answer.”
However, some solutions are not given any monetary or media attention, even though different communities have used them for hundreds of years to control malaria. Some insist that the case of the doctors from Democratic Republic of Congo, Jerome Munyangi and Michel Idumbo, who conducted clinical trials of a herbal remedy to malaria, is proof that the WHO, Big Pharma, and African governments ignore these solutions because they are not profitable, as revealed in an investigative documentary by France24.
The title of the film, Akoota, is an Acholi word that means divination. I chose it for two reasons, the first being that the film is set in the future. The other is the relation between local knowledge systems and science. We have been taught ‘science’ from a Eurocentric point of view, and we are to take it as absolute truth. The rules of physics, they say, are the rules that govern our reality, and we do not question them, so we consider other forms of knowledge inferior to this Eurocentric ‘science’.
For a long time, I struggled with my education, until I read Ron Eglash’s book, African Fractals: Indigenous Design and Modern Computing, in which he suggested that the root of binary code used in computational devices and machines today is a divination system practiced in many parts of Africa. Divination, the thing we were taught to believe is gibberish, witchcraft, and unscientific. Yet, here is a respected mathematician saying that it is at the root of the driving force behind modern knowledge systems and technology.
This concept tickled my imagination. After all, I create stories that are science fiction, and until I read Ron Eglash, I thought that the science and technology I write about should conform to the Eurocentric scientific canon I was taught in school. But now, I understand that there is another kind of science, and I ask myself, what would have happened to our knowledge systems had colonialism not interrupted their natural development?
The film is aimed at answering this question from the point of view of healthcare and the treatment of malaria. In order to do that I imagined a settlement that preserved its traditional architecture and cultures, yet one that was highly technologically advanced at the same time. For example, architectural elements like the ‘hut’ as we know it in rural Africa, would retain its shape, cylindrical body, cone roof, but it would have a hi-tech make-up — the roof would not be grass-thatched but have solar panels. Similarly, the weapons would be some kind of spear-gun hybrid. I could clearly picture this fictional world in my head, but incredibly limited resources and an intermediate knowledge of CGI somewhat stood between the vision and the realisation.
However, the costumes were relatively easier to create. For the costume design, I worked with a young woman, Lamunu Hope, who has always thought of herself as a tailor until I convinced her to be a costume designer. During the conceptualization phase, we looked at photographs of Africans from a hundred years ago in various archives and imagined what our clothing would have looked like without Westernization. By doing that, I was of course aware that I was looking at photographs made by colonialists, and I knew that every photo was perhaps not as authentic as I had hoped for. We studied photographs of warriors and chiefs, designing the costumes accordingly. For materials, we used cheap generic leather for the soldiers, since warriors in the past wore skins. It would have been incredibly expensive for us to use actual skin in the film. For the main characters we used bark cloth. Though Acholi did not traditionally wear bark cloth, it is the closest, and most readily available, traditional material I could find that has survived, and is struggling to survive, globalization.
The film is set amongst the Acholi people, through them I could use the past to talk about the future. In the film a malevolent government uses religion to control people and genetically engineered mosquitoes to keep them confined in a domed village. This is a typical sci-fi trope, a domed utopian city with armed guards ‘keeping it safe’, whilst desperate people try to get in. Yet, real life is full of symbolic domes that are also violently real: refugee camps, immigrant detention centers, prisons, and concentration camps all fit this mould. In Northern Uganda, just over a decade ago, as war raged between Joseph Kony’s LRA and Yoweri Museveni’s UPDF (formally NRA), the government drove the Acholi out of their homes forcing them to live in camps. Some, including the UN, thought this was the best strategy to keep people safe from the boogeyman, Kony. In the future, technology could make it much easier to confine entire nations in a single place, and so in Akoota, the boogeyman is a genetically modified vampire-like mosquito. With swarms of these mosquitoes in the wild, people must stay inside domed villages for their safety to be guaranteed. Prohibited to go outside of these panoptic villages, they become de facto prisoners, trading their freedom for safety.
Domed future, Domed past
About a hundred years before the IDP Camps in Northern Uganda, thousands of Acholi confined themselves in mammoth caves in the Guru-Guru hills, about an hour’s drive from Gulu, as they fought the British colonialists. The old man who keeps the site, mzee Keneri Lakane, says his father was a little boy during the war, famously known as The Lamogi Rebellion. “He was taken to work for the white man as a house boy,” Keneri says of his father. “He was too young to fight.” The war broke out when the British, afraid of armed natives, tried to control the spread of guns to the Acholi, requiring everyone to register and pay a gun tax. “Asking us to register our guns was like asking us to register our wives,” Keneri says. “You can’t put a label on your wife, so why should you put it on your gun?”
The Lamogi Rebellion lasted about two months, though the leader, Rwot Awich, had been fighting the British for decades. He was from Payira, but staged his defense in Guru-Guru, likely due to the fact that the hills have huge caves that can accommodate thousands of people. They built gated fortifications using logs to control access to the caves. Some caves were used as hospitals to treat the wounded, Keneri says there was a cave to treat men and another to treat women. He was not sure why. They got water from wells and streams that sprout out between the rocks, which they only accessed at night.
On one rock, which Keneri said was just inside the fortifications, near a gate, a set of 32 holes, in four rows, eight holes per row, is still visible. Here, during lulls in fighting, warriors played a mathematical game called Coro — common in many parts of Africa but known by different names. In some places it was used in other aspects of daily life, notably, as a birth control mechanism. Using different colored seeds, a woman uses it to know her safe days. The game involves making rapid calculations to beat an opponent and is an example of indigenous mathematics. I’ve heard of other games, which require knowledge of complex mathematics to beat an opponent, though they are not as common as Coro.
In the film, I wanted to allude to an alternative mathematical system by having a data input mechanism, a kind of keyboard, that looks like and functions like a Coro game board. I failed to achieve this, though it seemed easy at concept stage. Still, to visualize computer data, I borrowed from Tegan Bristow’s project, beadwork to coding, which, Bristow states, “…presents an interesting body of works that contribute to the growing evidence that Africa has been an active agent of coded practice for much longer than has been recorded by the West and at times shows a deeply entrenched use of binaries through rich patterns, beadwork and localized subversive language.”
The British launched many attacks on Guru-Guru, without success. Both sides incurred losses. One British soldier was shot with a poison arrow in the buttocks. This was frog poison mixed with onions and other herbs. They say when you die from this poison, flies won’t come to your corpse — and that it hurts! This British soldier’s flesh started to rot before he died. Keneri says that if he was Acholi, he would have known the treatment for the poison. Or, if he respected local knowledge as a science, he would have survived. Acholi medicine men would have used horns, called lacwi, to suck out the poison, and then a herb called nege to seal the wound and enable healing. But the soldier thought Western medicine could handle the poison, and so he was taken back to Gulu where the missionaries had a hospital.
As he lay in agony, dying, with his doctors unable to save him, he heard that there were people from around Guru-Guru working for white people, Keneri’s father amongst them. The soldier wanted to kill them all in revenge. However, a Nubian soldier the British had brought all the way from present day Sudan tipped off Keneri’s father and other Lamogi people, telling them something like, “Escape while you can. They want to kill you in revenge.”
The war ended when the British used chemical weapons. They gassed the caves, and victims would suffer severe diarrhea for three days before dying. Rwot Awich then told his commander that they would all die if they don’t surrender. He was, for a second time, exiled to Kampala and his brother took over leadership, now subdued.
On one rock, red stains are still visible. Keneri says it is the blood of an Acholi man who was killed during the war. The rocks have a reddish color in parts, almost looking like rust, but Keneri insists these drops are blood stains. This man was called Abete, and his story could end up as a folk tale. They told Abete not to go to a certain cave because the British had captured it, but Abete did not listen, and he was shot. To this day, his blood stains the rocks, a permanent reminder of his folly, and of this war.
In Akoota, one scene is set in one of these caves, and in this scene we learn about how to control the killer mosquito using a common plant. This plant, called lothiru, in real life is used in the Karamoja region to ensure a house stays free of mosquitoes all night. If the government of Uganda considered local knowledge as a science, it could have researched using lothiru on a large and national scale. This might include distributing the plant widely so that anybody anywhere can grow it and use it. It might also mean figuring out how to make insect-repellant paint, or candles, out of lothiru and sharing the formula freely. Instead, the government’s frontline solutions serve the neoliberal system. Therefore, I chose to shoot this scene in the Guru-Guru hills as an allusion to the war between various knowledge systems that has raged for many centuries, with one system considering itself superior to others, and this has not only led to misery, but could be disastrous to humankind. If it happened in the past, it could happen in the future. Back then it was chemical weapons, which today constitute war crimes. In the future, it could be genetically modified organisms. And, much like Abete, we may never listen.
About the author
Dilman Dila is a Ugandan filmmaker, writer and digital artist. He has published a collection of his short stories like A Killing in the Sun in 2014 and novellas, such as The Flying Man of Stone in 2016. His short stories have also appeared in several magazines and anthologies, including AfroSF v2 and Myriad Lands. His films have won awards at film festivals, including the Ugandan Film Festival (2014) and the Nepal International Indigenous Film Festival (2012).