Elephants Don't Cause Elephantiasis And Ojok's Ordeal In Uganda

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Photo of Ojok by Sam Lawino of The Acholi Times

[Global: Health]The title had the prefix "elephant" and that was enough for the article to grab my attention: it said “Man Battling Scrotal Elephantiasis Appeals for Funds.” 

It states that at 13, Ojok, in Uganda, developed what doctors said was a cardiac complication which gradually grew into scrotal hydrocele. Several attempts to help Ojok undergo surgical treatment at St Mary’s Hospital Lacor, Gulu Regional Referral Hospital and Mulago hospital in Kampala, failed, because the family could not raise the 3 million shillings (about $1,200) required for treatment.

The parents have appealed to the government and health specialists for help but in vain. It comes as no surprise that Ayet, the mother of Ojok, believes the illness was a curse from God and wishes God could cure him.

As I looked at Ojok’s photograph, an incident that took place in the mid-1980s flashed through my mind. We were in the Science Quadrangle at Makerere University, in Uganda. A colleague from Kabale said he wanted to take his mother for treatment at Lacor Hospital. I told him that it was reported to be one of the best hospitals in East Africa. And it was run by Drs. Lucille and Piero Corti who sometimes reverted to and spoke the Acoli language. He smiled and as I was about to leave he said: “Do you know of a place to stay whilst I am there and the people?”

“My parents would be glad to provide you with accommodation and you can see the product in me. The hospital is not far from our home,” I said and he breathed a sigh of relief. I am glad he made the trip.

By the time, I finished reading about Ojok I was transported back to my days in Queen Elizabeth National Park where I was doing research on Behavior Ecology of Elephants that survived the slaughters of the 1970s during the Idi Amin regime when poaching was the order of the day.

The elephant population had been decimated from approximately 3,000 individuals to about 150 elephants. Initially, I spent hours searching for elephants. They were nervous and would run at the sound of a vehicle. I developed a rapport with the managers Kataba, Kireta and other Mweya staff, people from fishing villages and cyclists who plied the route to Katwe. They helped me to locate elephants and I often got reports that: “Your elephants are around.” And cyclists would shout “Tembo yako iko kule," which is Kiswahili for "Your elephant is there.”

One day however, I got a note from Hamukungu, one of the fishing village enclaves, telling me that I must report to their office. On the way, I stopped at Kabatoro gate and asked the rangers whether there had been reports on elephants. There were none. As I drove, thoughts crossed my mind. Maybe elephants had either attacked people or their cattle; maybe elephants had destroyed their huts; maybe elephants had destroyed the fishing boats? I had not heard of elephants in conflict with the people in the village but, nevertheless, I braced myself for the worst.

Hamukungu had two divisions. The first I encountered as one enters the settlement on the track leading from the main road. I parked under a Euphorbia tree, jumped out and went to a former rest house of the Toro King that had been turned into a dispensary. From there, I was directed to the person who wrote the note. Some children waved and I waved back. It was hot, as I walked to “Lower” Hamukungu a rather densely clustered collection of houses and shops spread out along the lakeshore. The writer of the note was a man, aged about 40 years old, and the most educated person in the village. He owned the best well-stocked shop and a fridge. I was joined by Onen Marcel, my field assistant. The man from Hamukungu said:

"You look after elephants, our people like them very much."

"Yes sir, I do and thanks for the note," I said.

"Your elephants are beginning to spend too much time in the village. I fear we will develop Elephantiasis," he said.

I nodded and empathized with him but at the same time, I was struggling to recall what I had learnt about this disease in my parasitology classes. Suddenly, I was filled with a sense of guilt that these people did not know about the disease even though Hamukungu was one of the richest fishing villages in the area where people owned cattle; and where there was a dispensary and a primary school. In a composed voice and mindful of the sensitivity of the meeting I told the group that Elephantiasis had nothing to do with elephants.

“Why is it called Elephantiasis?” Someone asked.

“The name derives from the fact that people infected with the disease develop swollen limbs that look like those of elephants," I explained. And I added that it is caused by a type of roundworm and is transmitted by mosquitoes. I drew a rough shape to represent the worm. He nodded. “Elephants neither transmit the disease nor cause it,” I explained.

A smile returned to his face and to those he had gathered around us. I talked about my research and he said: "The elephants often spend nights close to the village and sometimes cross to the island."

Onen brought our elephant identity index and we showed them how to identify elephants. “Ni ndovu huyo alikua karibu ya nyumba," someone exclaimed, pointing at a single-tusk female and meaning, "This elephant was near the house."

I thanked them for calling me to express their concerns.

For now, it is Ojok to whom I must return. His pain is palpable, as he suffers from scrotal elephantiasis. He needs funds for treatment. His story speaks volumes about the ailing state of hospitals and need for basic education in Uganda.


Eve Lawino Abe PhD, is an Ethologist and Wildlife Consultant

Anyone who wants to help or get more information can also contact The Acholi Times, which first reported on Ojok's ordeal, throughsamolara@acholitimes.com


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