African Medical Pluralism

By William C. Olsen; Carolyn Sargent | Go to book overview

1
The Value of Secrets
Pragmatic Healers and
Proprietary Knowledge

Stacey Langwick

OVER THE PAST TWO DECADES, tense debates about traditional medicine, herbal resources, and African science have circled around secrets again and again. Scientists argue that healer’s secrets are an obstacle to meaningful collaboration. Bureaucrats assert that healer’s secrets prevent the development of national resources. Healers claim simultaneously that they have no secrets and that it is their right to defend their secrets. Each statement positions the speaker in a complex landscape of science, law, and capital. This essay contemplates the value of secrets. It does not consider particular healing secrets but rather how secrecy is emerging as both a problem and a right.

In the process I unpack what a secret is in this field, when leveled as an accusation and when implemented as a strategy. While the uneven movement of healing knowledge in Africa has long been linked to the production of gender, age, and labor hierarchies, the problem of healers’ secrets as it is constituted today emerged as healing became entangled with property regimes, both those that shape the institutional labor of scientists and those that structure the legal maneuvers to protect traditional knowledge.

The scientific investigation of traditional medicine in many African countries was institutionalized in the 1970s as newly independent governments struggled to find the hard currency needed to purchase pharmaceuticals critical to any national healthcare system. These efforts dovetailed with regionalist, PanAfricanist dreams to support an indigenous pharmaceutical industry in Africa. At times, they also became entangled with international efforts promoted by the World Health Organization to mobilize traditional healers as a solution to the shortage of workers in the healthcare sector of developing countries. At other times, the scientific development of traditional medicine has been promoted as a first step in the manufacturing of African pharmaceuticals and has had a force of its own. Therapeutic plants, it seemed, offered more political and economic possibilities if they could be separated from the relations critical to healers and their

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