Academic journal article African Studies Review

Health, Power and Politics in Windhoek, Namibia, 1915-1945

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Health, Power and Politics in Windhoek, Namibia, 1915-1945

Article excerpt

HEALTH & DISEASE Marion Wallace. Health, Power and Politics in Windhoek, Namibia, 1915-1945. Basel: P. Schlettwein Publishing, 2002. xvii + 312 pp. Photographs. Appendix. Bibliography. Index. 48 CHF/20 GBf/130 NAM$/130 ZAR. Paper.

Too often, Namibia figures only in the general Africanist literature linked to sensational stories, whether on the sad fate of the so-called hottentot Venus, Sarah Bartman, the genocide of the Herero, or Nazi sympathies among German settlers. Marion Wallace's valuable study of urbanism, public health, and disease and healing in the small colonial capital town of Windhoek is a welcome corrective. Unusually, she successfully examines the role of both biomedical and indigenous healers, a task made more difficult because she cannot rely on any previous histories of urbanism or of public health to back her up.

As a reader might suspect, the documentation on biomedicine is much richer, and Wallace leaves no archive, no matter how scattered, unturned. Her understandably shorter treatment of indigenous medicine is based on a series of interviews among Herero and Damara informants. She is able to demonstrate that healing offered possibilities for indigenous urban dwellers to build identities that did not depend on the approval of the colonial state.

Wallace is also careful to show how Windhoek differed from South African cities and towns more familiar in the literature. In Windhoek, the ratio of women to men was far more evenly balanced. Not an industrial center but the administrative capital of large territory, Windhoek was the scene of competition between whites sharing the ideology of their counterparts in South Africa-but with even fewer liberal voices, and more overtly Nazi ones-and blacks reinventing themselves as permanent urban workers, mainly in the service sector. One illustration of difference is the extent to which harsh and intrusive controls on gender were imposed in the name of public health. In the 1930s, the colonial state required compulsory venereal disease controls and examinations of all black women except for a small minority married under colonial law. As part of the complex gender wars waged throughout colonial Africa, Herero men in Windhoek chose to support these controls. …

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