Abstracts for African Ideas and Local Knowledge Workshop, 29 November 2013, Queen Mary


Patrick Harries (University of Basel)

'Knowledge and knowing: Tracing some Local, African Practices'

[Abstract Forthcoming]

William Beinart (University of Oxford)
'"Disease will come with the Season": Environmental and Nutritional Ideas about Livestock Disease and Healing in South Africa'

Our research explores African understandings of livestock health and treatment in South Africa.  We argue that this is an important area of African local knowledge in which hundreds of thousands of livestock owners are engaged.  It is all more significant because the central state has gradually withdrawn veterinary services in the last few decades and smallholders are left more to their own devices.  At the same time, land reform, although proceeding slowly, is gradually opening more opportunities for African livestock ownership. In her famous ethnography Reaction to Conquest (1936), Monica Hunter noted that witchcraft ‘permeates the whole of life’ and that there was little distinction between natural and supernatural explanations of disease in Mpondoland.  By contrast. our research, drawing on  over 200 interviews in three different South African provinces, suggests that natural and environmental – but not biomedical – understandings of animal disease are now more significant.  We believe that our detailed discussion of natural, nutritional and environmental aspects of veterinary understanding and treatment is a relatively new approach and will help to expand discussion of these issues in African Studies. One of our most striking findings is that even livestock owners who used vaccines and modern drugs did not necessarily accept the aetiological explanations that might be expected to inform the administration of these therapeutics.  Despite the fact that most of those interviewed were now enthusiastic protagonists of dipping, biomedical knowledge had not passed with the dip.  For example, they saw ticks as troublesome but not as vectors of specific diseases such as gallsickness and heartwater, two of the key infections we encountered.  Rather they saw the latter as a consequence of seasonal environmental changes.  This is particularly significant in relation to dipping because people understood dipping to be valuable as an irregular practice to get rid of ticks, rather than as necessary for controlling disease. In this presentation, I will explore different elements of environmental understanding of disease, and suggest both the depth and limits of local knowledge.  The talk will also touch on  treatment with solutions made from plants collected from forests or the veld.   Natural understanding of causation is in some respects mirrored by natural cures.   However, African local knowledge is by no means static and our evidence points both to increasing medical pluralism and fragmentation of knowledge.

Karen Brown (University of Oxford)
'Disease Lies in the Spoor of Women: Supernatural Explanations of Livestock Diseases in Contemporary South Africa'

This paper is based on research William Beinart and I carried out in North West Province, QwaQwa (southern Free State) and the Eastern Cape between 2008-2011. In it, I attempt to assess the relevance and importance of supernatural forces in the conceptualisation of livestock diseases. In general, we found that stockowners attributed sickness to environmental and nutritional factors; however, there were circumstances when informants did invoke supernatural explanations of causation. Respondents did not attribute livestock deaths to witchcraft, except in very specific situations, and our interviews indicated that the salience of sorcery in explications of disease might have declined over recent decades, at least in relation to animal health. Overall, stockowners' testimonies contrasted with some recent studies on the modernisation of witchcraft in South Africa, which suggest that the occult remains a dominant force in society. What appeared far more frequently in interviews than witchcraft was the highly gendered approach to livestock management in which women, in various states of being, were accused of causing death, infertility and general harm to cattle. The footsteps – the spoor of women – were constructed as potentially harmful. During our interviews, we unveiled two new words for dangerous footsteps mohato in North West Province and umkhondo in the Eastern Cape.  These terms have not appeared in earlier ethnographies and their emergence suggests that ideas about what anthropologists have termed ‘ritual pollution’ are evolving and changing. A number of women (and some men) have challenged patriarchal explanations of illness and misfortune in interesting ways, raising new questions about the origins of sickness, and who should have the right to tend to domestic animals.

Isak Niehaus (Brunel University)
'Dreaming Dreams or Seeing Ghosts: On the Mystical Efficacy of Antiretroviral Drugs in the South African Lowveld'

Recent anthropological studies of pharmaceuticals demonstrate how users impose regimes of value on them that might differ from those that producers intended. In line with these studies, my presentation explores the meanings of antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) in South Africa. Despite the fact that government initially opposed the the distribution of ARVS, nearly 1.9 million HIV positive South Africans are currently using them. Despite numerous obstacles Highly Active Antiretroviral Treatment (HAART) programs have achieved reasonable rates of adherence. Drawing on in-depth interviews with 17 HIV positive persons in the Bushbuckridge municipality of the South African lowveld, I show how vivid and frightening dreams were pivotal to the experience, that were a self-limiting side-effect of medication, were pivotal of therapeutic experiences. Residents of Bushbuckridge perceived of serious dreams as a mode of non-normal cognition that provided glimpses into the nature of transcendent realities. Against this backdrop vivid dreams attested to the power, and also to the mystical efficacy of ARVs, The dreams enacted a journey from near death to renewed life that persons living with AIDS against danger. Far from leading patients to abandon ARVs, I argue that these dream experiences enhanced compliance with treatment.  My presentation highlights some of the complexities involved in the study of local knowledge.