Disease in Africa has been the subject of a large number of rich studies. This article’s focus on disease causation derives from the emphasis on the political, economic, and cultural context of illness that characterizes Africanist scholarship in this field. A prominent strand of writing has examined how Africa’s relationship with external forces, from imperial conquest through the development of tropical medicine to neoliberal privatization, has shaped how disease has both spread and been interpreted. Scholars have noted the continuities in the depiction of Africa and Africans as particularly prone to disease from the era of Western exploration, through colonization, missionization, and industrialization, into modern discourses around Global Health, emerging tropical diseases, and chronic illness. Within this narrative, debates around the relative significance of race and environment have proven remarkably resilient, due, in part, to commercial interest in genetic vulnerability to disease and investigations into the relationship between zoonoses and cancer. Significant research has also explored how the scientific sureties of Western biomedicine have often been filtered within Africa through faith-based organizations’ spiritually infused healthcare, particularly in the early colonial period and in response to the recent sidelining of public provision associated with structural adjustment and the international prioritization of vertical programs targeting specific illnesses. This interest is matched by explorations of evolving indigenous traditions of disease explanation, so often tinged with a concern for spiritual as well as physical healing, and with public as well as personal health. While the article is structured broadly around chronological shifts in thinking and practice, a number of specific diseases or groups of diseases—HIV/AIDS, malnutrition, mental illness, sleeping sickness, and STDs—have been selected to serve as case studies, due either to their significant role within the history of Africa or to the global importance of the academic writing on these conditions.
Jamison, et al. 2006 provides a useful overview of disease patterns in contemporary Africa. Schumaker 2011 is a helpful guide to scholarly debates. Janzen 1978 is an important example of work that focuses on the patient, indigenous theories of disease causation and perceptions about the relative strengths of local and biomedical therapies. Africans’ encounter with biomedicine, particularly in the colonial period, is the focus of Bado 1996, Feierman and Janzen 1992, and Vaughan 1991. The political contexts of, and cultural responses to, contemporary Africa’s encounter with chronic disease, Global Health, HIV/AIDS, and medical experimentation are best approached through Graboyes 2015 and Livingston 2005.
Bado, Jean-Paul. Médecine coloniale et grandes endémies en Afrique 1900–1960. Paris: Karthala, 1996.
Examines the colonial tendency to focus on epidemic disease in French West Africa, and the comparative neglect of endemic conditions such as leprosy, onchocerciasis, and sleeping sickness.
Feierman, Steven, and John Janzen, eds. The Social Basis of Health and Healing in Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
Influential collection, critical of colonialism’s impact on African health.
Graboyes, Melissa. The Experiment Must Continue: Medical Research and Ethics in East Africa, 1940–2014. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2015.
Significant examination of the history of a series of medical experiments across East Africa, from the 1940s to the early 21st century. Analyzes the power imbalances and ethical issues surrounding medical research in both colonial and postcolonial Africa.
Jamison, Dean, Richard G. Feachem, Malegapuru W. Makgoba, et al., eds. Disease and Mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa. Washington, DC: World Bank, 2006.
Useful reference text. Chapters focus on a range of key diseases in Africa. Update since first edition adds considerably to consideration of HIV. Valuable data. Designed to support the World Bank’s work in the health sector.
Janzen, John. The Quest for Therapy in Lower Zaire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.
Discusses indigenous conceptions of disease, and the willingness of the ill to seek medical support from both local and biomedical healers.
Livingston, Julie. Debility and the Moral Imagination in Botswana. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.
Examines the production of chronic illness by local patterns of poverty, labor migration, and familial relationships. Important for its focus on ageing, and indigenous conceptions of wellbeing.
Schumaker, Lyn. “History of Medicine in Sub-Saharan Africa.” In The Oxford Handbook of the History of Medicine. Edited by Mark Jackson, 275–279. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Valuable discussion of recent scholarship around disease in Africa.
Vaughan, Megan. Curing Their Ills: Colonial Power and African Illness. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 1991.
Important analysis of both how Africans viewed Western biomedicine and how secular and missionary medicine understood African mental and physical illness.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
- Achebe, Chinua
- Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi
- African Socialism
- Africans in the Atlantic World
- Aid and Economic Development
- Arab Spring
- Arabic Language and Literature
- Archaeology and the Study of Africa
- Archaeology of Central Africa
- Archaeology of Eastern Africa
- Archaeology of Southern Africa
- Art, Art History, and the Study of Africa
- Arts of Central Africa
- Arts of Western Africa
- Asante and the Akan and Mossi States
- Bantu Expansion
- Benin (Dahomey)
- Botswana (Bechuanaland)
- Brink, André
- British Colonial Rule in Sub-Saharan Africa
- Burkina Faso (Upper Volta)
- Cape Verde
- Central African Republic
- Children and Childhood
- China in Africa
- Christianity, African
- Coetzee, J.M.
- Colonial Rule, Belgian
- Colonial Rule, French
- Colonial Rule, German
- Colonial Rule, Italian
- Colonial Rule, Portuguese
- Communism, Marxist-Leninism, and Socialism in Africa
- Comoro Islands
- Congo, Republic of (Congo Brazzaville)
- Congo River Basin States
- Conservation and Wildlife
- Crime and the Law in Colonial Africa
- Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire)
- Development of Early Farming and Pastoralism
- Diaspora, Kongo Atlantic
- Disease and African Society
- Early States And State Formation In Africa
- Early States of the Western Sudan
- Economy, Informal
- Education and the Study of Africa
- Egypt, Ancient
- Environmental History
- Equatorial Guinea
- Ethnicity and Politics
- Europe and Africa, Medieval
- Family Planning
- Farah, Nuruddin
- Food and Food Production
- Fugard, Athol
- Genocide in Rwanda
- Geography and the Study of Africa
- Gikuyu (Kikuyu) People of Kenya
- Gordimer, Nadine
- Great Lakes States of Eastern Africa, The
- Hausa Language and Literature
- Health, Medicine, and the Study of Africa
- Historiography and Methods of African History
- History and the Study of Africa
- Ijo/Niger Delta
- Image of Africa, The
- Indian Ocean and Middle Eastern Slave Trades
- Indian Ocean Trade
- Invention of Tradition
- Iron Working and the Iron Age in Africa
- Islam in Africa
- Islamic Politics
- Kongo and the Coastal States of West Central Africa
- Language and the Study of Africa
- Literature and the Study of Africa
- Lord's Resistance Army
- Maasai and Maa-Speaking Peoples of East Africa, The
- Mau Mau
- Media and Journalism
- Military History
- Modern African Literature in European Languages
- Music, Dance, and the Study of Africa
- Music, Traditional
- Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
- North Africa from 600 to 1800
- North Africa to 600
- Northeastern African States, c. 1000 BCE-1800 CE
- Obama and Kenya
- Oman, the Gulf, and East Africa
- Oral and Written Traditions, African
- Police and Policing
- Political Science and the Study of Africa
- Political Systems, Precolonial
- Popular Culture and the Study of Africa
- Popular Music
- Population and Demography
- Postcolonial Sub-Saharan African Politics
- Seychelles, The
- Slave Trade, Atlantic
- Slavery in Africa
- São Tomé and Príncipe
- Social and Cultural Anthropology and the Study of Africa
- South Africa Post c. 1850
- Southern Africa to c. 1850
- Spanish Colonial Rule
- States of the Zimbabwe Plateau and Zambezi Valley
- Sudan and South Sudan
- Swahili City States of the East African Coast
- Swahili Language and Literature
- Tanzania (Tanganyika and Zanzibar)
- Traditional Religion, African
- Trans-Saharan Trade
- Urbanism and Urbanization
- Wars and Warlords
- Western Sahara
- Women and African History
- Women and Colonialism
- Women and Politics
- Women and Slavery
- Women, Gender and the Study of Africa
- Women in 19th-Century West Africa
- Yoruba Language and Literature
- Yoruba States, Benin, and Dahomey