Bodies, Politics, and African Healing: The Matter of Maladies in Tanzania

Bodies, Politics, and African Healing: The Matter of Maladies in Tanzania

Bodies, Politics, and African Healing: The Matter of Maladies in Tanzania

Bodies, Politics, and African Healing: The Matter of Maladies in Tanzania

Synopsis

This subtle and powerful ethnography examines African healing and its relationship to medical science. Stacey A. Langwick investigates the practices of healers in Tanzania who confront the most intractable illnesses in the region, including AIDS and malaria. She reveals how healers generate new therapies and shape the bodies of their patients as they address devils and parasites, anti-witchcraft medicine, and child immunization. Transcending the dualisms between tradition and science, culture and nature, belief and knowledge, Langwick tells a new story about the materiality of healing and postcolonial politics. This important work bridges postcolonial theory, science, public health, and anthropology.

Excerpt

Frozen by her doubts, Binti Mayaula did nothing as she watched a man die of AIDS. She had had a dream in which she had been told to collect the root dying’weo and make it into a tea to cure just such a patient. When she awoke, however, Binti Mayaula was uncertain. She knew this root, having used it in the past to make a medicinal paste to apply externally to sores. The sores had dried up and that patient had healed. But now she was called upon to administer the medicine orally. Anxious that the concoction would be toxic, she hesitated. The man with AIDS, who had come to her for help, passed away. She worried: Had her reluctance to follow the directions she received from her familiars cost him his life? Was she implicated in his death? Months later she dreamed about dying’weo again. This time her familiars and spirit guides revealed that her cousin, Binti Dadi, would come to know this cure for AIDS. The next day, she met her cousin while they helped their uncle harvest his cassava. As they worked side by side, Binti Mayaula recounted her second dream, which indicated that Binti Dadi would come to know this new medicine when her anthropologist returned.

In 1998, I made a home in the town of Newala in southeastern Tanzania in order to conduct research on healing. During my first year of fieldwork, I worked increasingly closely with Binti Dadi, a well-known healer in the area, spending many hours each day with her collecting plants, talking with patients, and helping her prepare and administer medicine. In late 1999, I left Newala for a few months. It was my intended return in 2000 to which Binti Mayaula referred. Shortly before I arrived in March, the mashetani said to rule (kutawala) Binti Dadi came to her in a dream to tell her to collect dying’weo. The process glossed as “dreams” (ndoto) by these healers references a deep engagement with ancestral shades and other familiars. Dreams serve as a medium of communication between visible and invisible realms, between present and past, between the human and nonhuman. In this dream, Binti Dadi’s grandmother instructed her to pound the dying’weo roots and to prepare it as a porridge (uji). As she told me about this vision, she confessed that like her cousin, she also was reluctant to administer the concoction orally for fear that it might be poison.

About a month later Binti Dadi fed a bit of mashed dying’weo to a rat. The rat did not die—an indication, she suggested, that it may not be poisonous to . . .

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