Borders and Healers: Brokering Therapeutic Resources in Southeast Africa

By Graboyes, Melissa | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Borders and Healers: Brokering Therapeutic Resources in Southeast Africa


Graboyes, Melissa, The International Journal of African Historical Studies


Borders and Healers: Brokering Therapeutic Resources in Southeast Africa. Edited by Tracy J. Luedke and Harry G. West. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006. Pp. 223; $65.00 cloth, $24.95 paper.

As a historian working on medical history, I was excited to see Borders and Healers. It seemed to be an excellent opportunity to keep abreast of the newest anthropological literature. However, halfway through the introduction, I did what frustrated readers do: I skipped to the end. More specifically, I flipped to the final paragraph of Steven Feierman's afterword. There I discovered that "The processes are, of course, too complex to capture" (p. 194). That's when I began to worry.

Perhaps starting with the end is unfair. Borders and Healers is a collection of essays written primarily by anthropologists, but it-unfortunately-contributes little new information to the field of health and healing. The volume investigates both borders and healers, arguing that the power of healing is "bound up with crossing, constructing and maintaining borders" (p. 6). What the authors believe is original in this approach is "the idea of the healer as border-crosser and boarder guard-indeed, as border embodied" (p. 7).

There are separate chapters addressing healers and borders in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Botswana, South Africa, and Tanzania. The first chapter, written by Harry G. West, presents very interesting case studies of healers in northern Mozambique. He records their changing practices and probes the blurry line between who is a traditional healer rather than a modern healer and what constitutes indigenous knowledge as opposed to modern knowledge.

Chapter 3, "Of Markets and Medicine" written by David Simmons, is a refreshing change from some of the other contributions. Rather than philosophizing about when "traditional" medicine becomes "modern," the author asked Zimbabwean healers and traditional medicine administrators that question. Readers are treated to actual quotations, which are fascinating. Simmons also shows how "traditional" healing is modernizing and professionalizing through the naming of drugs, the use of latex gloves, and bottling and labeling strategies. The chapter also addresses another hot button issue: the use of clinical trials to test the effectiveness of traditional medicine.

Chapters 6 and 7 both deal with Tanzania, although in different time periods. Julian M. Murchison's "From HIV/AIDS to Ukimwi" dissects and analyzes a singular story told in southern Tanzania about a woman giving birth to a cure for "Ukimwi" (AIDS). He argues that the storytellers are "not only making and shaping history and culture," but are also "asserting control" over "their lives and their health" (p. …

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