Mobile healers, politics and development in sub-Saharan Africa 1870-2000: Transformations, contestations and innovations

Project description

How have mobilities, contestations and global exchanges affected healing and medicine in sub-Saharan Africa from the late-nineteenth century onwards? How healing has intertwined with politics? How has innovation, continuity and invention of tradition in African healing taken place?

Despite estimates suggesting that around eighty per cent of sub-Saharan Africans use indigenous medicine to some extent, our current knowledge of the history and dynamics of healing in the fast-growing continent is inadequate. Previous research has tended to focus on single regions, major diseases, colonial medical discourses or contemporary history. By contrast, there has been a lack of longer-term histories, studies of healers as important historical agents, and collaborative investigations that enable trans-regional comparison, and analyse the dynamic of change, contestation, hybridisation and mobility in medicine. This project seeks to foster historical understanding of medicine and health in Africa through its focus on three interconnected core areas: 1) the changing figure of the healer, 2) the interface between healers and politics and 3) the interaction between healers and developmental policies.

In this project,  the main questions are:

1) How were mobilities and global exchanges manifested in images and discourses of healers, and what were key topics of contestation and forms of hybridisation? Can we discern new innovations, adaptations or inventions of healers’ traditions?

2) How did healers engage with colonial, national or regional politics?

3) What kinds of tensions emerged with international development programmes in healthcare, and how were these contests addressed?

4) Can we discern notable similarities and differences in healer images, their political engagement and relations with development programmes across regions and over time?

 The team focuses on Namibia, Malawi, Somalia and Tanzania, with wider comparisons made possible through collaboration with project partners. In the first phase of the project, senior research fellows Jan Kuhanen and Kalle Kananoja will focus on Tanzania and Namibia respectively.

The project combines archival research and oral history fieldwork, methodological and empirical collaboration and co-writing. The main results will be published in peer-reviewed publications and in popular formats, with emphasis on open access. Finally, the team, together with partners, aims to provide a synthesis of the main research findings, which are expected to be of value to a range of end users interested in global health and medicine.

Project coordinator

University of Oulu