Haighet Pioneers in Search of a Cure
By Gherezgher Bekit
October 15, 2017
Before the invention of writing systems, oral tradition was the only medium of communication. In the absence of written records, people used to chronicle past events and narrating stories by referencing special occurrences of notable events such as floods, wars, fire, earthquake, famine, draught, disease and many more without having to resort to providing specific dates or years. Timeline was recorded as such by relating to the era as “The Year of Epidemic”, “The Year of Great Famine”, “The Year of Locust Invasion”, to mention a few. This was the old method or technique used of remembering things. Haighet was no exception. It had its share of pandemic, big earthquakes, fires and floods as well as successive invasions by neighboring feudalists.
Getting to the crest of the matter, recently, I read pieces of wonderful collections including poems, short stories and natural phenomena of Haighet, written in Tigre by Professor Enno Littmann, a German orientalist who served as a professor of Oriental languages at German universities. He was a staunch admirer of Nafee Itman, the pride of Mensa and the icon of the Tigre language. These stories gave me the indication that Haighet, with Mensa Bet Abrehe being the ground zero for the crisis, suffered major catastrophic events that almost pushed it to the brink of extinction. The catastrophic events are known in Mensa as “Amet Gdri (Year of Smallpox)” and “Amet Sembue (Year of Bovine Lung Disease).” My writing of this article is not to discuss the causes and effects of these pandemics but rather to share with you the clever and forward-thinking technique that Haighet applied to fight the diseases. During the reign of Emperor Fasilides of Ethiopia (1632-1667) or the 17th Century, there was a natural outbreak of smallpox in Haighet that claimed the lives of more than 700 people, both the old and the young. They called the year, “The Year of Smallpox.”
Due to the unprecedented magnitude of this devastating disease, fear and confusion reigned the land. Nevertheless, they did not take a quiet approach. I would imagine that they scrambled for search of a cure. They broke the confines of traditional thinking of letting nature run its course. Some intelligent and reasoned minds came up with a startling technique that I thought it would not happen at the time. They took pus from the infected person and injected it into the healthy individual in an effort to immunize the healthy person. The person would then show mild and temporary symptoms of fever and after a few days he/she would get better and thereby get “inoculated or immunized.” All things considered, they were able to contain the disease to a certain degree from further disseminating.
I reached out to Ato Abraham Hasebeni, my brother-in-law who is currently residing in Minnesota, to augment the story about the crisis. He told me that, as soon as the people understood the severity of the epidemic, they immediately began to quarantine those who had been infected with the virus to contain the infectious and contagious disease outbreak from spreading further. A confinement location had been designated for the sick eastside of Gheleb, past Ghebena. The area was afterward known as ‘Kalkala’, which means quarantine, confinement or seclusion. There is also place called ‘Kelwet’ inside the area of ‘Kalkala’, which also means solitary confinement or seclusion. Abraham went on to say that all the victims of the smallpox disease were buried in one place near ‘Kalkala’ which till this day the location is recognized as “Qabir Seb Gdri” (Cemetery of the smallpox victims). I asked Abraham how these thoughts came to their minds and his response was “When the need for something becomes imperative and desperate, you are forced to find ways of getting it resolved.” On the surface, this technique seems so simple, but beneath the surface, this practice was a whole different order of complexity, which in the end saved many lives. What a genius act of awesomeness and valor!!
As we all know, there were no needles available at their disposal at the time. So, the question is what kind of tools did they use to carry out the procedure? I know this answer could be contentious, but from my perspective, they might have used prickly or spiky objects to poke into the sores of the infected person, just to get enough of the material and then poked it into the healthy person. When I was young and growing up in a village, I had seen some innate “practitioners” removing cataract from goats and cattle eyes using thorny objects from cactus or other plants.
During the 15th century, Portuguese occupation introduced smallpox to Western Africa and in the 17th century, European colonization imported it to North America. According to Wikipedia, “Smallpox is an infectious disease caused by either of two virus variants, Viorala major and Viorala minor. Infection with smallpox is focused in small blood vessels of the skin and in the mouth and throat before disseminating.”
In 1796, almost a century later, Edward Jenner, an English doctor, invented the vaccine against smallpox using the same process of variolation. In the 1800’s, smallpox vaccination became widely acceptable and gradually replaced the practice of variolation and thus smallpox was completely eradicated from the face of the earth.
As if the devastation from smallpox wasn’t enough, a few years later, Haighet had to face up to and deal, again, with another outbreak of Bovine Lung Disease or Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD). This tragedy came to them as a grim reminder of the proceeding “Year of Smallpox.” The cattle would exhibit symptoms of coughing, droopy ears, dull eyes and social isolation and a few days later they would begin dying at an alarming rate. Social isolation was a symptom of depression. Like humans, when animals get sick, they get depressed and isolated from the rest of herd. At the outset, the people were overwhelmed by the calamity and didn’t know what to do. But when they skinned the cattle to diagnose the disease, they observed swollen lungs with big holes in them that looked like cobwebs. That year, they lost a considerable amount of cattle to the lung disease and eventually resorted back to the same method they used to treat the smallpox outbreak.
Working feverishly against time, they took blood from the infected lung of the dead cattle and injected it into the healthy ones to immunize them. Again, this practice worked and saved many cattle. They called the year, “The Year of Bovine Lung Disease.” I am certain that if this practice were to be applied somewhere in Europe at the time, it could have made it to the headlines of European newspapers. So, the point that I want to drive home is how on earth these people came up with this surprising and shocking method of treatment and were able to leave some astounding ‘biopharmaceutical’ traces behind?
As I was looking deeper into the source of this incredible ingenuity using Google search, I was absolutely flabbergasted to find out that China and Middle East used similar technique called Variolation, named after the virus. In 1720’s, a century later after Haighet used the method, the technique was introduced to England and North America. The process was applied similarly by taking material from the smallpox sores and was given to people who had never had the disease. This was done by scratching the material into the arm or by crushing the smallpox scabs into powder and inhaling it through the nose.
Although the technique was not exactly the same, one being injected while the other inhaled, the concept & the goals were identical. I tried to link the two methods and how Haighet or the Mensa people could have replicated this kind of method from China and the Middle East in the 17th Century when there was no mode of communication between them and the rest of the world. But, I couldn’t come up with substantiated evidence except more questions. Could it be a power of intuition where people may intuitively know the answer to a problem? Do we know more than we think we know? Could it be an act of desperation to take such a drastic action to infect themselves with a virus? From my point of view, even if they had heard of this procedure being applied elsewhere and attempted to imitate it, it was still a very daring act to deal with such a contagious disease.
In a nutshell, there is this mantra that people must provide evidence when there is competing versions of events in order for them to be taken seriously when accounts and memories shared orally. Otherwise, one may conclude that the story is a myth. But, oftentimes, as they say, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. You just have to look for it.
That same year, meaning “The Year of Smallpox”, Damir wed Gibitan dreamt interacting with Nor wed Biemnet and his brothers who died earlier from smallpox and when he woke up from his dream, he recited the following poem:
ዳምር ወድ ግብጣን እብ ሕልም ሓዉ ወኖር ወድ ብእምነት እብ ግድሪ ለሞተው ረኣ። ወክም ፈዝዓ እላ ሕላየት ሓላ።
ሚ ሕልም ረክበኒ ሰብ ተሓት ወሰብ ለዐል ለትጋሌ
ህቶም ጎዬ ኢመጹእ ወኣና ዐልኮ እትላኬ
ኖር ርኤና ወድ ብእምነት ሹም ለሸየም ፈራጼ
በይእ እት ድጌ ከልካሊታት ልትቃሴ
እደሁ ለኣስሮ ኢተኣቤ ፈጋር እምበል ሕማሴ
ሜስ ሓድግ ቱ ወማሳ ጽንዕ ሓድግ ቱ ወሕንቃቀ።
ኣፍሓሬን ባልስ ሰበሳቦ ፋጼ
ቡሳዩ ለፍልፍ ደብናሁ ትዘራኬ
ዐድ ከንቴባይ ሰብኮ ሸኪክ ወድዋር ልትዋዴ
ሰብኡ ዐድ ሕድ ደራግግ ኣሩይ ምን ሕድ ልትኣቴ
ዐብደል ግሳስ ሰልማ ልጅንግላይት ትትካቴ
ባርያይ ቢሻ ለጸዐና ለሻፍግ እግል ዘማቴ
ላንኪት ዘነብ ጅንግላይ ታ ጋድላይታ ተትሓሴ
ሰራግያ ክል ሕጥር ምን ክል ሕጥር ትትቃዴ
ኣፎ ስካብ በዴኒ ሸለም ታ እምበል ህርጋቴ
ኣናማ ህግያ እት ኣምር ቱ እት ገሮብዬ ኣትባዴ።
Later that same year, meaning “The Year of Bovine Lung Disease”, Qtum wed Hamad recited the following poem in dedication to the terrible loss of cattle from the disease:
ቅጡም ወድ ሐማድ እግል ኣሓ ሰምቡእ ክም በዴት ሀዬ ለቤላ
እብላ ኢትብዴ ድቢት ለረዪም መክለላ
ዐቢ ድምጹ ዘምታ ኣልሓጽ እንዶ ኣሰራ
ታይቦታታ ለጃግሕ ወፈግር ምና ለኢከሀላ
ኩሉ ህታ ዜደቶ ለክሉቅ ምንዲ ትሜዘና
ደሀብ ወሶሚት እበን ቱ ወግምሽ ተዐቀራ
ልደርር ምኑ ኣለቡ ክዋና እንዶ ዐገላ
ምን ትፈቴ ተናይተካ ኤሻት እብ ክል መሰላ
ምን ትበልዕ ተናይተካ አዘቅ ምስል መሐደራ
ምን ትገይስ ተናይተካ ከትከት ወዴ ለእገራ
ምን ትሽሕራ ተናይተካ ትከሬ ዲብካ ጀበላ
ምን ትሰቴ ተናይተካ ዔላ ትከልስ ጸልጸላ።
Publications of the Princeton Expedition to Abyssinia By Enno Littmann, Written in Tigre in October 1913
Wikipedia- Definition of Smallpox