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This is a true story.

At the dawn of the long war's final century, the tide was turning. The Abomination was in retreat, driven back by warriors wielding the Lance of Jenner.  But in this war as in all wars, some battles could not be fought so directly. Battles waged in cunning and lies. Battles where the enemy lurked in shadow. In those shadows an unholy alliance was forged between the Pox Abomination and a conspiracy of... humans.

The traitors to the Yoruba people named it "Sopona", gave it a face, and proclaimed themselves the Abomination’s priests. They claimed that they alone could intercede with the Abomination on behalf of its victims. And to cross them, they said, was to incur Sopona's wrath. 

They would unleash the Abomination upon any who dared oppose them - and sometimes they would simply inflict Sopona's torture indiscriminately. Amid death and devastation their victims would beg the Priests for help, further cementing their grip on power. And all the while they kept Jenner's Lance at bay, for their power rested in fear of the Abomination, and should it be slain their power, too, would come to an end.

The Priests were shrouded in secrecy: the better to obscure their lies, and the better to hide from those who would challenge it. Through blackmail and terror, they maintained their iron grip for generations. So total was their power that none dared utter "Sopona" lest they invoke its wrath - and so even the true name was hidden.

Every measure by every authority failed to contain the Abomination. They could never understand why, for they were blind to the enemy's allies. The Deathly Priests and their twisted methods were beyond the grasp of governments, warriors, and weapons. Here the global campaign could not reach. Here, harbored by its murderous allies, the Abomination reigned, mothers wept, and the Yoruba people resigned themselves to a god of suffering and death against which there seemed no hope.


It is inadvisable to try to hide from humans. They are curious, relentless, ruthless creatures, fearless when determined and cunning as well. And none were more human than Dr. Oguntola Sapara.

Oguntola was a proud child of the Yoruba people. His father, born in chains, together with his mother, raised a family of prodigies: not only Oguntula, but his brother Alexander and his sister Clementina. But Clementina's story was all too short, for when she was to bring life into the world, she was instead taken by death.

There are no records to tell us how Oguntola felt that day; All we know is that it was at this moment that Oguntula dedicated his life to defending the innocent from the inhuman evils of the world, to master the protective arts and wield them against any who would dare threaten his people ever again.

For years he studied, and toiled, and healed, growing ever stronger in the art through talent and sheer force of will. Ten years on his quest took him across the seas to study in a far away land, and here yet more obstacles greeted him. For among the practitioners of the art were counted a great many fools. They would forfeit the privilege of working alongside one of humanity's best for the most vapid and meaningless of reasons, and worse still actively stymied his efforts in all things lest their foolishness be revealed for the lie it was.

But Oguntola persisted, surmounting every obstacle lesser humans would set before him. He not only prevailed, but he proved himself among the greatest of the practitioners, was recognized as a master of the art, and elected to the Royal Institute of healers.

(In the midst of everything, he even assisted the legendary truth-seeker Ida Wells in her crusades against evil and ignorance - but that is another story.)

His training complete and his mastery assured, Dr. Oguntola Sapara returned to Lagos to confront his true enemies.

In Ebute Metta he sheltered the innocent from an enemy encroaching on all sides, crushing the scourge beneath a well-laid foundation and scouring the air of its curse. In Saki he erected a mighty armory that people might arm themselves against the blights of the world. But it was in Epe where Oguntola would confront the Secret Priesthood and the Abomination they served.

That the Abomination was present was immediately clear to Oguntola, and knowing its weakness he deployed the Lance of Jenner - but it had no effect. The Lance never struck true, as if some unseen force were diverting it. And this the doctor would not abide. And so he trained the full power of his senses, his determination, and his mind on the shrouded battlefield, seeking out what hidden hand opposed him. And he heard whispers of a Secret Society, a cult whose priests were said to commune with the Abomination, their god. But they were untouchable, ghosts in the night, beyond the reach of any organization.

But not, perhaps, beyond the reach of a single man.

He would undertake his mission against Sopona alone. No government nor ally of any kind would afford him even the slightest protection. He would be surrounded at every moment by murderers who would not hesitate to take his life under the most agonizing of terms if they suspected who he truly was. An Order of Murderers unchallenged for generations against one doctor armed only with his wits and a determination to save his people.

And so Dr. Oguntola Sapara, master of the healing arts, infiltrated the conspiracy that served his greatest foe.

Day by day, he gained their trust. Lied to them, as they had lied to so many. Smiled as they detailed their murderous methods. Listened eagerly as they divulged their secrets and confirmed his worst suspicions. Of how they kept the Lance at bay. How any comfort the people might find would be taken by Sopona, lest they imagine they needed not the Priests. How those who refused to cooperate found themselves struck down by Sopona's hand. And with each word and action, they unknowingly laid bare the breadth and depth of their plot before the doctor who would destroy them.

In time the doctor came to possess the knowledge the Priests of Sopona had killed to protect - the knowledge to bring them to ruin. And so he summoned the men who had terrorized the people of Epe. Outnumbered but unafraid, Oguntola stood firm and described in detail the crimes he now knew they had committed, and threatened the consequences that might befall them. And in that moment, after years of murder and countless horrors, facing one man who had bested them all - 

The traitors fled from Epe, fearing The Doctor Who Knew.

But Dr. Sapara did not pause to celebrate, for Sopona still lurked. Once more he brought forth the Lance of Jenner, and this time it struck true, scouring Epe of the Abomination. Sopona was sent reeling, helpless against one of the mightiest weapons in humanity's arsenal.

Oguntola did not stop there, for Epe was but one of many caught in the clutches of Sopona. He recorded his discoveries for all to see, a bitter truth that burned so bright the Cult of Sopona recoiled in fear across the land. A shadow of its former self, some scattered remnants of the conspiracy feebly attempted to strike out once more, but the injury was permanent and there were none to heal it.

This would not be the last triumph of Chief Dr. Sapara, bearer of the insignia of Bashemi, Honorary Consulting Physician to the Egba Native Administration, member of the Imperial Service Order. He confronted cruelty and ignorance among the healers across the sea, weakening those lies beneath the harsh light of truth as he had Sopona. When the Black Death itself struck his home, he led the fight to vanquish it and emerged victorious. When his triumphs yielded riches, he did not keep it, but instead funded further protection and healing wherever he could. He even sought out the ancient weapons of rumor and myth, to discover if they too could aid humanity in the struggle. And still he was not done.

For he never forgot what had sent him down this path. Whenever he could, Dr. Oguntola Sapara returned again and again to the necessity, the urgency, of defending the life-bringers and the young lives they carried. To this end he provided for many women to undertake the journey he had so many years ago, to travel across the seas and master the art - including his own daughter. He founded his own society, the very antithesis of that which he'd destroyed: to share and spread knowledge, to grow and protect life. There he provided for the training of legions of Guardians, each sworn to defend the life-bringers, and those new souls brought into this world, from any demon, blight, scourge, or abomination that would threaten them. And knowing the struggle was long, he ensured that the next generation would be stronger still. Thus the legacy of Dr. Sapara extends beyond the enemies he felled: it is knowledge gained and weapons forged, lives unended, generations defended, ignorance exposed and hope enduring.

Dr. Oguntola Sapara lived a long and full life, but he would not live to see humanity's final triumph over Sopona. The Abomination was a vast and ancient foe, and our victory did not come quickly. But few wounded the Abomination as Dr. Sapara did.

We owe Dr. Oguntola Sapara, and every human who fought in the long war, a debt we can never pay back. We can only remember, and pay it forward, that in time more and more of humanity’s enemies join the Abomination in the oblivion where they belong. And so we fight, day after day, year after year, generation after generation, until everyone is safe.

Sopona is dead by our hand. Humanity is alive. And we are not done yet.

Happy Smallpox Eradication Day.


Sources

Adeloye, Adelola. Some Early Nigerian Doctors and Their Contributions to Modern Medicine in West Africa

Oladele & Augustine, 2016

Wikipedia, “Sopona”. Retrieved May 7 2023.

Wikipedia, “Oguntola Sapara”. Retrieved May 7 2023.

Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh website, “Oguntola Odunbaku Sapara”. Retrieved May 7 2023. Retrieved May 7 2023.

Zaccheus Onumba Dibiaezue Memorial Libraries website, “Oguntola Odunbaku Sapara”. Retrieved May 7 2023.

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Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 2:37 AM

Thanks for sharing this. I'd never read Dr. Oguntola Sapara's Wikipedia page before, and I'm glad I read it now. A few key paragraphs:

He made many contributions to improving public health. He fought for slum clearance, organised a society for scientifically training midwives, organised the first public dispensary in 1901, and identified causes of an epidemic of tuberculosis in 1918, which included overcrowding, poor ventilation and public ignorance about hygiene.

He was Chairman of the Health Week Committee, leading the successful fight against bubonic plague, which struck Lagos in 1924.

In Nigeria at that time, numerous secret societies, such as the "Sopona" cult of the Yoruba people, had power. Sometimes they tried to blackmail people, threatening that if an individual did not pay money, the society would make him become ill and die.

When a victim refused, a member would infect him with smallpox through applying scrapings of the skin rash of smallpox cases. To keep their powers, the societies resisted public health efforts for vaccination. Sapara joined the cult incognito, at considerable personal risk. When he had learned the secret of their power, he helped the government prepare legislation to ban the societies.

We discussed the possibility of featuring content on smallpox on the Forum today, in honor of Smallpox Eradication Day — May 8. But despite humanity's ability to coordinate to eradicate the disease, we've failed at coordinating on a day to commemorate this event, so we've got two, and we've gone with December 9 on the Forum before (in part because of a certain post). But I still find it useful and humbling to remember smallpox and the eradication efforts today. I also really appreciated this Vox piece from a few days ago. 

jai
1y19
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Apologies for making the coordination problem worse. I actually picked December 9th before I knew about the two dates, inspired by this comment from B_For_Bandana on LessWrong in 2013 - in particular the last paragraph:

Because Smallpox Eradication Day marks one of the most heroic events in the history of the human species, it is not surprising that it has become a major global holiday in the past few decades, instead of inexplicably being an obscure piece of trivia I had to look up on Wikipedia. I'm just worried that as time goes on it's going to get too commercialized. If you're going to a raucous SE Day party like I am, have fun and be safe.

I thought about this when I was reading Kelsey's piece. Thanks in part to this comment, the alternate reality it itself described is actually starting to become real.

Anyway - in the absence of a solution to the coordination problem I can at least help make the discrepancy more explicit:

IsItSmallpoxEradicationDay.com

For totally selfish, non-historical reasons, I feel like May 8 is a better date:

  • December 9 is too close to other rationalist/EA holidays, like Solstice, Giving Tuesday, and Petrov Day.

  • December 9 is right at the START of the typical cold/flu season, when infectious diseases are the worst. (Although idk if smallpox, plague, typhus, etc, were also seasonal in this way?) Maybe this makes it thematically resonant? But personally, like how Christians celebrate Easter at the end of winter, I feel like Smallpox eradication is a good seasonal match as a spring holiday, when flu season has receded and we are enjoying the bountiful outdoors and etc.

  • Not sure if it is a plus or a minus to have the holiday located in December during the "giving season" of charity fundraisers. Probably still a big plus, despite the competition from other fundraisers. And probably this factor is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars of money moved, which would vastly overwhelm my mere desire for a nice springtime EA holiday. (But I can still feel grumpy about it.)

One other counterargument is that rinderpest eradication day is on 25 May. Just two weeks after May 8.

We could combine them as "Eradication Day" on May 8, like the US does for "President's Day" in February.

This is amazing -- thank you.

jai
1y10
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Thank you for the praise. I just want more people to know this story. 

In addition to being just a really impressive person, I can't get over how cinematic Dr. Sapara's life is.

This is profoundly silly, but it's a thought I can't get out of my head: "The doctor, in the course of his travels, investigates a mysterious force that's killing people, discovers a cult whose priests are using the living weapon to kill and keep the people in fear. He confronts them with the truth and defeats them without firing a shot" sounds like the synopsis of an episode of Doctor Who. He even spends some time in the UK! "The doctor served as a rogue spy in the war against Smallpox and singlehandedly defeated a cult of death by talking" is an actual thing that really happened, and no one knows about it.

Seriously. Someone should make a movie!

Agreed, if this was on Netflix I'd probably watch it, and I'd potentially be pretty happy to contribute to a Patreon/Kickstarter/etc of such a movie in the works!

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