Africa in Our Lives: Ayodeji Adegbite

Ayodeji is a Ph.D. student in History of Science, Medicine, and Technology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research focuses generally on the history of health, infectious diseases, and environmental and social change in Africa. Ayodeji has researched the history of yellow fever and Ebola in Africa. He received his BA in history from the University of Ilorin, Nigeria, where he also acquired a degree in Peace and Development Studies at the university’s Center for Peace and Strategic Studies. He teaches Global Environmental Health at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Tell us about your research

My dissertation research is a historical study of knowledge production, as well as economic, environmental, and political change, in which to understand the place of biomedicine and public health in the liberation struggles of West Africa and the contemporary push to decolonize global health. At the center of this history are African medical experts who played pivotal roles in the history of health in Africa from the colonial era to global health. When completed, my project has the potential to be a pioneering work at the intersections of African history and the history of science and medicine, and the environment. I have won a number of competitive fellowships and grants including the Ebrahim Hussein Fellowship, History Graduate Student Summer Funding, Departmental Fellowship, and Holtz Center STS Mini Fellowship that have supported my research in Nigeria. I have visited four archives in Nigeria viz National Archive Ibadan, University of Ibadan Archive, Lagos State Archives and Record Bureau, and National Archives Kaduna.

What piqued your interest in the history of health, infectious diseases, and environmental and social change in Africa?

I started studying history and international relations in college. I learned a lot about the history of colonialism and its impact on politics, the economy, and the environment in Africa. Studying history in college also made me curious about the intersections of science and technology in society and vice versa. These interests coalesced during my National Youth Service Corps—A mandatory one-year post-college National Service program in Nigeria. 2015 was the year. It was also the year that Ebola Virus Disease had broken out in West Africa killing over 11,000 people and attracting international concern. I volunteered as an Ebola Corp during my national service. Fortunately, the disease was well-managed in Nigeria and did way less damage than it had done in other West African countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.

How the Nigerian government managed the Ebola crisis would be the subject of my first MA thesis in 2017 while I was studying at the Center for Peace and Strategic Studies, University of Ilorin, Nigeria. I remember pondering over why it took the World Health Organization so long before coming to the aid of West Africans during the Ebola crisis, allowing the disease to take so many lives and declaring the crisis a global emergency. Such questions can only be answered by a historical analysis of the history of science, medicine, and health in Africa. In my MA program in History of Science, Medicine, and Technology at UW-Madison, I examined the historical epidemiology of yellow fever in West Africa from 1900 – to the 1930s. It revealed how Western economic interests during colonialism created environments for diseases like urban yellow fever to thrive. My MA research forms part of the first chapter of my dissertation.

Tell us about your best teaching moment.

One of my best teaching moments would be my last lecture from Global Environmental Health Class that I taught in the 2020 Spring semester. We had read a part of Rob Nixon’s book Slow Violence, and so during the class we discussed, the concepts and issues surrounding environmental injustice, environmentalism of the poor and the role played by writer-activists such as Ken Saro-Wiwa in exposing environmental violence in the resource crises in Nigeria and elsewhere. To help the student better grasp understand the nature of the crises in Nigeria and its similarity with indigenous history elsewhere, I played an Afrobeat song Monsters You Made by the Nigerian artist and Grammy award winner Burna Boy who was born in the same oil rich region in Nigeria as Saro-Wiwa. With Chris Martin crooning the hook on this fusion of reggae and rock, Burna Boy uses his digestible lyrics to unknot the academic concept of “structural racism” and “colonization” which we had dealt with over the cause of the semester and helped put a human face to it. In the music video, Burna further portrays landscapes of environmental injustice while evoking a militia-like atmosphere of revolution and resurgence. The video helped the student grasp the message in a way that the book could not. I know this from the comments and feedback that I got during the class and after. One student wrote that I brought a unique perspective to the class that would not have been possible without my background and experience.

Produced by Cecilia Kyalo