For centuries, Sopona (pronounced Shaw-kpaw-knoor), the Yoruba god of smallpox was a much feared deity. Its priests held great power, serving as mediators between the deity and mere mortals. To ‘keep Sopona happy’, they imposed a levy on the people of which failure to pay would surely invite the wrath of the god. Sopona could strike by afflicting its debtor with the dreaded smallpox which could easily decimate his entire family. Any survivours had deep scars, evidence that Sopona had marked them.
These were perilous times.
Its a bird. Its a plane. Its… a doctor!
By the late 1800s however, a young Yoruba doctor came on the scene. He was one of the few indigenous doctors appointed at the newly built Lagos General Hospital.
A man of his time, he — like his colleagues — had studied the seminal works of Edwin Jenner who had invented the Smallpox vaccine and had seen it work wonders in the western world. He decided to replicate it here at home and proceeded to undertake the first major attempt at population vaccination in Lagos and its environs.
His name was Dr Oguntola O. Sapara.
The Battle: Knowlegde vs Ignorance
The young and gung-ho doctor encountered stiff opposition from the Sopona priests who had become de-facto leaders of many communities. Frustrated but resolute in his quest, he decided to take a somewhat unconventional approach. He went undercover and joined the Sopona cult! He deceived the priests, and after a while they took him in and showed him how they did their work.
His findings were astounding.
The Sopona priests would take skin scrapings (basically pus and fluid samples) from infected individuals and clandestinely infect healthy members of the community who were unable to pay the ‘Sopona tax’. They would do this amid great incantations, showboating and razzmatazz, wearing fearful looking dresses and other paraphernalia. These shenanigans effectively put the fear of Sopona and his priests in the hearts of the locals. Since their threats always came to pass, the fear ran deep and they got to keep their place of power.
Nothing in life is to be feared, only to be understoodMarie Curie
On making these discoveries, Dr Sapara went back to the colonial authorities who along with him, moved into the population debunking the myth of Sopona, challenging the dubioius priests and effectively vaccinating the population.
Today smallpox has been completely eradicated in Nigeria and the world at large and Dr Sapara and all he did for public health in Nigeria is all but forgotten…
But somehow, Sopona and all that he represents is not.
3 Replies to “Stories of the (not so) Great Sopona”
Well written, and I enjoyed reading too!
Great read Ijay!
Beautiful piece Ijay.