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GSSC Seminar Series June 28, 2022


House Quarantine: Smallpox Interventions in Colonial Tanzania, 1930s-1960 and Lessons for Covid 19

Musa Sadock (University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania)



In colonial Africa smallpox was one of the major epidemics which necessitated colonial governments to take control measures against the disease. Nevertheless, the measures not only required Africans` support but also enlisted varied Africans` responses. Despite the aforesaid responses, extant historical literature on government`s interventions against the disease during colonialism, has given little attention to Africans` role and their responses to the measures. This study therefore investigates government`s smallpox control measures in colonial Tanzania and African responses to them from the 1930s to 1960. The study argues that the government`s measures against the epidemic showed African agency as well as the limits of the control measures. It glues the argument and findings by mainly drawing on archival information from the Tanzania National Archives collected between January and May 2022. The study has established that the colonial government in Tanzania carried out the following public health initiatives to control smallpox: geographical and house quarantine, contact tracing, vaccination of select communities, and public health education especially in towns. To control the epidemic, Africans participated in smallpox control measures as local leaders namely chiefs and jumbes (headmen) and as medical auxiliaries such as Tribal Dressers. Regarding responses, Africans showed varied responses ranging from embracing the control measures to resisting and evading them. The significance of the above findings shows African agency in the control of the epidemic. It also offers us lessons for the control of other post smallpox epidemics including the current Covid 19. The lessons come from rectifying weaknesses on the past public health control measures to tame epidemics as well as from learning good public health practices such as sustained mass vaccination and public health education, availability of sufficient fund, medical personnel and health infrastructure and mobilizing popular support for control of epidemics.