Kalala Ngalamulume (History)
Translating Health: Science Across Cultures
The French in Senegal, 1850-1920
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum
Kalala traced for us the mid-nineteenth-century colonial experience of attempting to translate western concepts of health and disease across cultures.How to make the Senegalese abandon their own conceptions and embrace theirs? Kalala described indigeous theories of disease causation and therapeutics; the various (themselves competing) western theories of disease causation that preceeded the adoption of germ theory in 1914; the different translators (state officials and missionaries, for instance, often had "competing agendas"); and the audience, which ranged from "the sanitary citizens" who acepted western concepts to Muslims who mistrusted western initiations, and were afraid of being converted to Christianity. The conflict between the two cultures' different conceptions of disease was not resolved until the 1940's, when the introduction of antibiotics meant conversion en masse to Western thinking about disease and health. Until that time, hospitals were contact zones, places of ideological conflict. In all these areas of incorporation and conflict, legislation was the first method of conveying the ideas of western health (fining for improproper disposal of garbage, for instance, was a way of teaching the importance of hygiene). Much of the education took the form of "enlightened propaganda": there was an ideological component behind it, an intention to convert. Every surgery became a propaganda, an attempt to recruit others into belief in western forms of medicine. Indigenous nurses were known as "agents of penetration" for their work in spreading ideas of health. It was a big problem getting Africans to abandon beliefs that disease was caused by magic, witchcraft and spirits. There were no western treatments (for what today we would call psychiatric ailments?) or for genetic diseases. The French, who believed in their civilizing mission (and wanted to transform the Senegalese into "Black French") defined mental illness in terms of law and order. The success rate of immunizations was only 66%; the innoculations sometimes lost potency in the shipment from France.
The Brown Bag series on "Science's Audiences" will continue next Friday, October 29, at 1:15 in the Multicultural Center, when Don Barber of the Geology Department will give another account of translation: "Interpreting Climatic Catastrophe: Media vs. Science." In the interim, the conversation is invited to continue online.