Nodding Syndrome: an Illness-in-the-Making

Nodding syndrome affects thousands of children in post-conflict northern Uganda, South Sudan and in Tanzania. Little is known about the prognosis, but it is thought to be very debilitating both physically and mentally. So far there is no known cause or cure.

Nodding syndrome is characterized by repetitive, involuntary nodding of the head, triggered by food and cold weather, mainly affecting children aged 5 to 15 years and resulting in mental retardation and stunted growth. Children living under the poorest conditions seem most susceptible to the syndrome and the majority of the affected families experienced food shortages and have a history of internal displacement. Many children have dropped out of school, some have died. Death mainly results from secondary causes. A lot of these cases showed marks of drowning or burns from fire, which might have followed seizures, or malnutrition.

In northern Uganda, the symptoms were first noticed around 1998 in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. In local explanatory models the syndrome is often associated with conflict, since the affected areas have served for twenty years as a battleground for the war between Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan government. During the course of the conflict it is estimated that between 25,000 and 60,000 children have been abducted to serve in the LRA. By 2005, more than 90 percent of the population in this area had been driven from their homes into IDP camps.

In conversations, newspapers and items on television in Uganda, nodding syndrome is linked to central social issues, such as conflict, poverty and frustrations over neglect. In this documentary we show the complexity of nodding syndrome and the many different narratives, explanatory models and coping styles regarding this affliction. In attempting to understand what nodding syndrome is en how it is experienced, we should look at the context in which it takes place and how meaning is being given.

This documentary is based on three years of anthropological research, including fifteen months of fieldwork in northern Uganda.

Full length documentary forthcoming (end of 2014).

A film by Karin van Bemmel and Evert Daniel Aalten.
Made possible by Ghent University and Scandal Studios.

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