Remember this tweet: 

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

On her flight from New York to South Africa in 2014, a woman named Justine Sacco decided it was hilarious to tweet these sentiments out to her 175 followers. The post went viral and eventually cost Sacco her job and livelihood. 

While we can look at a comment like this today and see why it is abhorrent, it wasn’t long ago that AIDS was perceived as the “African disease” — thanks to Western media and a lack of funding for healthcare across the continent, as well as misinformation that grew like wildfire, a lot of people thought the way Sacco did. 

This begs the question, why do the diseases that affect everyone, become viewed as African-only diseases? While all the details of the origins of HIV and AIDS are not entirely outlined, the narrative of who suffers from the virus and syndrome in the modern day attached itself too easily to Black African people because, for a long time, Africa did not have access to the global microphone. This meant that people like Justine Sacco could say whatever they wanted because their assumptions and damaging stereotypes were the norm. 

What is a little hypocritical, however, is that if we look at the diseases that have left their mark on the African continent, some of them came on a ship or were spread by colonizers. 

Let’s dive into that discussion, shall we? 

The Diseases That Colonialism Brought to Africa


Like a lot of diseases, it’s hard to say where exactly cholera came from. Texts from Greece and India from the 4th and 5th Century B.C. describe a condition with similar symptoms to cholera. The first recorded cholera pandemic (a quick spread of a disease across a large region or  continent) occurred in 1817 in India, and spread across Asia affecting countries like Thailand, China, and Japan. Some East African countries along the Indian Ocean saw the disease touch their shores, but the second pandemic hit Africa hard. Throughout history, there have been seven cholera pandemics, and it was the second that really had its grip on Africa. 

Historian James L. A. Webb Jr. for the Cambridge University Press explains the origins of the second pandemic in Africa: “the major impact began in Algeria, where French troops inadvertently introduced the disease, and then spread to neighboring Morocco and Libya.” 

Each pandemic then dug its talons deeper and deeper into the continent. Today,  Africa is witnessing the seventh pandemic, which hit the continent in the 1970s. We are still consistently seeing outbreaks across the continent, with the most recent occurring across southern Africa due to unpredictable weather patterns.  


Meningitis has its origins in Geneva, with the first outbreak of the disease occurring in 1805. While there is not a lot documented about meningitis’ path to Africa, historians believe that it came with colonialism. Particularly as the first case of meningitis on the continent was reported among French troops in Algeria in 1840, just 10 years after they began to colonize the country and not long after the disease ravaged its way across Europe and the Americas. Today, meningitis is prominent in West Africa, and the African CDC reports that an estimated 30,000 cases are reported each year on the continent. 


The diamond rush in South Africa in the 1800s saw many injustices that we cannot even begin to elaborate on (though we will sneak in that the most expensive diamond in the world that currently sits in Buckingham Palace belongs to South Africa). One of these injustices was the introduction and spread of venereal syphilis to the country’s shores. 

According to the pathology department at the University of Cape Town, the disease was introduced by sailors, soldiers, and European settlers through the Cape Coast in the 17th century. This saw an epidemic (a rapid spread of disease) take shape in the 1800s in direct correlation with the diamond rush, and later the gold rush. 

Diseases That Spread Because Of Colonization

Some diseases that originated in Africa and subsequently spread across the globe, could have been a lot less detrimental to the world if it weren't for colonization. Two that come to mind are AIDS and malaria. Both are long stories and fascinating to read up on if you have the time, but summarized, here’s how it happened. 

The earliest we can track back AIDS to is the colonial era, in the early 1900s. The disease came from a hunter consuming an infected chimpanzee in southeastern Cameroon, and then becoming infected themselves through a potential cut. However, it is argued that the disease might not have spread to become an epidemic across the country and around the world were it not for colonialists cementing their stay in Africa. 

“It is now clear that the epidemic’s birth and crucial early growth happened during Africa’s colonial era, amid massive intrusion of new people and technology into a land where ancient ways still prevailed,” explained journalist and clinical investigator Craig Timberg and Daniel Halperin in their book, Tinderbox. “European powers engaged in a feverish race for wealth and glory blazed routes up muddy rivers and into dense forests that had been traveled only sporadically by humans before.” 

Malaria, on the other hand, spread because of slave labor and forced relocation linked to colonialism. European slave traders brought the disease to their own lands — and other countries that they were in the middle of colonizing, like those in Latin America — because they took Africans from their homes and enslaved them in various regions. 

What’s also interesting to note is that some African countries were immune to the impacts of malaria until colonialism happened. According to medical historian Randall M. Packard in The Journal of African History: “In the southern African country of Swaziland [now eSwatini], malaria was common but nonfatal before colonial intervention.” 

Packard continues: “This was due to the immunity that can be acquired with repeated exposure. When colonists arrived, however, they removed Swazi inhabitants from their homelands, forcing them to move into lowlands with larger mosquito populations.” 

Damaging Narratives

One of the most significant issues with diseases being perceived as “African” diseases is that it makes it too easy for wealthy Western nations (who’ve unjustly acquired their wealth and resources from the continent and other now-marginalized regions) to separate themselves from diseases  they have the means to deal with. 

It allows them to take the “out of sight, out of mind” approach, making Global South countries the face of these diseases since Western countries have the financial resources to manage the problem in their own nations whileAfrican countries do not. 

Most recently, with COVID-19 in 2021, the spread of a Beta variant mutation was rapidly (and unfairly) being referred to as the “The South African variant.” This variant had come just as the Western world was being administered vaccines, but also just as the lifesaving jabs were being hoarded away from Global South countries by these Western nations. Thanks to misinformation campaigns and a direct callout from South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who called the phenomenon a “vaccine apartheid,” the name dissipated. 

However, it’s important to note here that narratives are crucial in how global healthcare is dealt with. Narratives decide where the money goes and who sees the disease eradicated or investigated. Damaging narratives make these diseases Africa’s problem, allowing Western countries to get away with not helping to fix them  despite them having the most resources. 

Pinning diseases on Africa does nothing to end the existence of the disease altogether. We need to shift away from viewing diseases as characteristics of specific countries (if not for scientific study to end them), and move towards pushing for funding their eradication no matter where they’re found.


Defeat Poverty

How Colonization Brought Diseases to Africa — And Ways It's Impacted The Global Health Narrative Today

By Khanyi Mlaba