Partial Publics. The Political Promise of Traditional Medicine in Africa

Partial Publics. The Political Promise of Traditional Medicine in Africa

Current Anthropology (U Chicago press), 4 November 2015

This essay examines how the publics of public health and those of public domain are reshaping one another in efforts to commercialize and manage modern traditional medicine in Tanzanian universities, government laboratories, nongovernmental clinics, and ministry offices. I argue that struggles over the practices that constitute the public to which contemporary traditional medicine will appeal are also struggles over who is obliged to respond to pain and debility, to mediate the consequences of misfortune, and to take responsibility for the inequalities that shape health and well-being. Post independence and socialist dreams had cast traditional medicine as the basis of an indigenous pharmaceutical industry and promised freedom from multinational pharmaceutical companies and global capitalism more broadly. By generating new publics, current scientific efforts to exploit the therapeutic and commercial value of therapeutic plants are experimenting with political and social philosophies, with biological efficacy, and with new forms of wealth and property. The uneven, contradictory, and partial projections of the public at play in these efforts are raising thorny questions about the forms of sovereignty that are possible within the neoliberal restructuring.

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