We often forget that the fancy medical terms we use in English usually have their roots in Latin and Greek and are actually just simple descriptors. Epilepsy is a classic example coming from the Greek epilēpsia, which is comprised of epi ‘upon’ + lambanein ‘take hold of’.
Mampruli also does that with several sicknesses. For example, stomach issues are described as pukpeeŋŋu – literally, “hard stomach” – and malaria is called dunsidooru or “mosquito sickness.”
There are also several diseases that are simply named after creatures believed to either cause the illness or that reflect the disease’s symptoms. In traditional African medicine, the preventative and/or curative measures can also be influenced by the animal namesake of the sickness.
Niŋŋa = Epilepsy / Bird
One type of scarification I have noticed in northern Ghana is a series of small, parallel scratches on the wrists or elbows. When I asked about the scars I’d get a nonchalant answer of niŋŋa which means “bird.”
A bit more investigating and it all comes together because the word niŋŋa is also used to describe epilepsy. The seizures come upon you suddenly as a hawk comes down and snatches its prey. Also, the seizing and flailing of a person caught in the throes of a seizure resemble the frenzied flapping of wings.
Local healers will make small cuts on at a child’s joints and apply herbal medicines to the cuts when the child is very young. The marks look like they could have been scratches from a bird’s claws and are believed to cure or prevent the child from contracting epilepsy or seizures.
Kpakpuri = Swollen Spleen / Turtle
One symptom of a really bad case of malaria can be a swollen spleen. This is because the spleen’s primary job is to filter blood and during malaria it is working overtime to remove the parasites from red blood cells. Malaria is so rough on the spleen that it is the most common cause of spontaneous splenic rupture.
African traditional healers call this symptom of malaria kpakpuri which means turtle. They will make superficial cuts in the shape of a turtle shell (more or less round) over the swollen area on the abdomen and apply local herbs.
This image of kpakpuri scars is of a male patient Heidi saw who said he received the marks during a childhood illness. He was not aware of why his parents had allowed the scars but it is very likely that he was suffering from a bad case of malaria.
Zuŋzɔna = Smallpox / Bats
The reason bats and smallpox share name in Mampruli is a sad one. The disease would cause a terrible rash that would first break out on the face. The rash would then cover the body and turn into fluid filled bumps with a dent in the center. Therefore the horrific rash and bumps earned smallpox the Mampruli name “bat” as in “ugly as a bat.”
Buuwa = Measles / Goat
The identification of measles as buuwa or goat is an interesting one. Measles is highly contagious and years ago, when an outbreak occurred in a village, inhabitants would block the paths to their community with a particular thorny bush. In the pre-cellphone days, this was a sign to others what had happened and a warning not to enter the contaminated village.
Thorny branches are also used to protect gardens from hungry goats (and other livestock). So there was a saying that when there was a measles outbreak, even a goat couldn’t go into the affected area. Hence the name buuwa.
Taasinsimi = Foot Rot / Red Centipedes
“Foot rot” is category of illnesses caused by bacterial and fungal infections of the foot. The name is disgusting and so are the symptoms. In Mampruli, the word taasinsimi describes the conditions and is also used to identify a particular type of creepy, crawly red centipede that emerges in the rainy season.
The critters move together in groups across the damp ground. If you happen to accidentally step on them, the crunching and wiggling sensation under your bare feet will genuinely creep you out.
I couldn’t get a straight answer from anyone as to why the two share a name but I thinking their shared gross factor is enough justification.