Malaria in Ethiopia

by Jim McCann (Burie, Gojjam 73–75)

ETHIOPIA’S MALARIA IS QUITE DISTINCT. Do not let anyone tell you that it is under control; it is just being patient. DDT and chloroquine no longer are effective, and vaccines are an unrealistic hope at best.

Let me introduce myself
I was assigned to a rural junior secondary program in Burie, Gojjam from 1973 to 1975.  During two amazing years in a small town, teaching great students, and exploring local history, I was able to absorb the deeper meaning of the 1974 revolution that deposed Haile Selassie with other PCVs in the area. This historic event surrounded us with elements of excitement of a new day that was later tempered by violence and military rule disguised as socialism (Etiopia Tikdem!).  My first and only phone call in Burie came in February 1974 from Peace Corps in Addis telling us in three static-laden words: “Come to Addis!” We came as directed, hung out in the Plaza Hotel, but then two weeks later returned to our students and the classroom.

After my completion of service and a trip through West Africa, I returned home to work for a few months at the VISTA placement office in Chicago. After I completed a Ph.D. in History at Michigan State. I became the first American Fulbright Scholar to go to Ethiopia after the revolution. From 1980 to 1982 I conducted research on Lasta — the area around Lalibela —  and its  agricultural history. I was appointed to a position at Boston University, where I directed its venerable African Studies Center for 12 years.  I taught African history, completed more field work, wrote five books, and directed 25 Ph.D. students, some of whom work on Ethiopia.

I have been fortunate to return to Ethiopia and Burie often over the last few decades. In Burie our former landlord and friend, Semahagne, and his family live in our earlier house, where they have preserved interesting relics of our life there.  I have monitored elections twice for the Norwegian Institute on Human Rights and have served as a field studies consultant with Oxfam America, Oxfam U.K, UNEP, UNDP, Norwegian Save the Children, and the International Livestock Center for Africa.  These were remarkable opportunities where I continued to learn from my Ethiopian colleagues, build my Amharic literacy, and travel over remarkably diverse landscapes by mule, horse, and on foot.  And, yes, in an odd Toyota pick-up, and a beat up Loncina. I keep in close touch with several of my former students and many layers of friends and colleagues in Ethiopia. I now direct the Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer Range Future, a part of Boston University.  My predecessor was a member of the Nobel Prize team that worked on global climate change.

It has been a joy to keep Ethiopia as a part of what shaped my life, even as I have explored a career teaching and writing about African environmental history, and doing the things one does raising two daughters to early adulthood with Sandi, my wife (and former Peace Corps townmate).

Malaria project

Checking a well for mosquitos

For the past five years, I have led a Rockefeller-funded research project on malaria ecology with colleagues from the Harvard School of Public Health and the Ethiopian Ministry of Health. We have worked with local farmers and performed lab work on the changing context of malaria, mosquitoes, and anti-malaria programs. From 1973 to 1975 there was no malaria  in the area of Burie (6,900 ft above sea level), but in 1998, 70,000 people died in that immediate area, and 700,000 in Ethiopia overall. I suffered a rather serious bout of malaria myself while working for Oxfam in a very remote site during the 1985 famine while I was working on one of my research projects.

The project in which I am currently involved has its

Malaria awareness poster

base near Asandabo (55 km from Jimma), a growing market community. Though a dusty and cacophonous road town, Asandabo also boasts (and attested to by my Ethiopian colleagues) the best restaurant in Ethiopia. The yaTsome biyaynetu is to die for on Wednesdays and Fridays. On other days, the doro fenta is delicious. The injera is the local stuff and real, not like the immitation variety served in the U.S.

For this project we use data collected by our clinic lab on mosquitoes, malaria case rates, and satellite imagery of ecological change over four decades. The clinic has a dedicated staff of MSc students from Jimma and Addis Ababa Universities and is served by a loyal university donkey that brings the water.

Recently I received the very welcome news that I have won a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Fulbright to wind up my malaria research and teach at Addis Ababa and Bahir Dar Universities, and to write a book on malaria’s future. In applying for the Guggenheim Fellowship, I made the point to the selection committee that Ethiopia’s historical experience with malaria is, in fact, unique and illustrative of malaria’s possible future in a world of climate change and changing landscapes.  We can learn from Ethiopia’s malaria ecology by pursuing the science of malaria’s transmission over time and place, but we can also learn from human stories of affliction, survival, the changes than have taken place across Ethiopia’s incredible variety of human spaces and ecologies.

How you can help

Rainy season puddles — a mosquito heaven

Having personally had an experience with malaria, I am seeking out other Volunteers who may have also had episodes with this devastating disease.  These stories will help to illustrate the human side of this disease. If you had an experience with malaria while in Ethiopia, I would appreciate learning from you:

  • Where was your site?
  • Did you or anyone around you contract malaria? When?
  • Did your students or neighbors report malaria and when during the year?
  • Where did you/your students/community seek treatment?
  • What was that treatment?
  • What medication did you take? Were there side effects?
  • Are you willing to relate the story of your experience in a few paragraphs?

Please contact me directly with information (or stories) at I look forward to hearing from you.  For more information on the project, see Here you will find a short video clip about the relationship of a new variety of maize and the increase in malaria.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s