When the Presidency issued a press release two weeks ago regarding President Hage Geingob being diagnosed with “cancerous cells”, it sent shockwaves amongst citizens, the media and political commentators alike.
In a country where machismo is still deeply rooted in the culture of what a man ought to be, certain sectors of society applauded Geingob for his transparency regarding his health, and took it as a reassurance that African men in general, and black men in particular, are coming to terms with the reality that health should be a priority, and that a diagnosis is not something to be hidden or to be ashamed of, but rather something that can be treated through appropriate medical care.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “compared to members of other races, Black and African-American people have higher rates of getting and dying from many kinds of cancer.
Black people have the highest death rate for cancer overall, and black people have a lower overall five-year cancer survival rate than white people”.
Some of the reasons given for the high prevalence of cancer amongst men of African descent are their different genetic profile, and their mutations. Other schools of thought also point to diet and lifestyle choices.
However, where cancer is involved, African values and traditions, especially about the concept of “masculinity and “what it means to be a man”, also come to the fore. Dr Elizabeth Kamati, a private medical practitioner in northern Namibia, says cancer or the prevalence of cancer amongst Aawambo men is relatively new, but that does not mean it was not always there.
“I can speak with authority as an Owambo person when I say that cancer was regarded as a white people’s disease. In the Aawambo culture, it was regarded (and in some instances still regarded) as a taboo, and I believe with the President’s announcement of his ailment, he is sending a message that cancer is not a death sentence, and it can be treated if detected early”.
Kamati further said, “Access to healthcare amongst indigenous black communities may be a factor when considering the ‘theory’ that cancer is a new disease, or cancer is historically a white disease. You see, as people of colour, some of us, even the educated amongst us, do not do annual check-ups. Some people only go to hospitals when they fall ill, which is not advisable. Even if one looks at diseases like cancer, early detection plays a very big role in the possible success of treatment. The earlier the cancer can be detected, the better the chances of successful treatment”.
According to the Global Cancer Observatory Directory of the WHO, within Namibia’s estimated population of 2 540 916 million, in the year 2020, there were 3 345 new cases of diagnosed cancer. 1 441 of these cases were male, and 1 904 of these cases were female. Amongst males, Prostrate (23.8%), Kaposi Sarcoma (12.6%) and Colorectal (5.1%) were the most common. Amongst females, Breast (29.3%), Cervix (19.7%), and Kaposi Sarcoma (4.7%) were the most common. January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month.
On 4 February 2024, the world observes World Cancer Day under the theme: “Close the Care Gap”, which focuses on reducing inequalities in cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care.
The latest figures (2020) place cancer deaths in Namibia at 1 876.
No cancer is 100% preventable, but controlling certain risk factors such as tobacco and alcohol intake, physical activity, and eating healthy can minimise the risk of an individual getting cancer.
According to the WHO, “Cancer is the second leading cause of death globally, accounting for an estimated 9.6 million deaths or 1 in 6 deaths in 2018…. And as the cancer burden continues to grow, it exerts physical, emotional and financial strain on individuals.
Namibia’s Head of State Hage Geingob’s press release regarding the diagnosis of “cancerous cells” allows Namibians to be made aware of cancer at a family, social, community and national level, and to educate one another on the importance of making health a priority in our personal and family’s lives.
*Vitalio Angula is a socio-political commentator and independent columnist.