Methods and Literature

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The archive of the East African malaria research Institute at Amani in 2015 (Photo: Gerrets with permission)


Building on Africanist historical anthropology and ethnographic history (Moore & Vaughan 1994; Hunt 1999; White 2000), our project links ethnography and history through a focus on materiality – i.e., the presence of the past in its enduring ‘traces’ ­(Lachenal 2017; Tousignant 2017; Geissler et al. 2017; Kilroy-Marac 2018), drawing also on material culture studies, STS and contemporary archaeology. Its core method is ethnography: long-term, open-ended presence in the field, attending to contemporary human, non-human and inanimate material worlds. We take clues also from documentary and oral history, but primarily attend to the people inhabiting landscapes shaped by past epidemics (including health professionals and patients), and explore material traces together with them, jointly tracing, or ‘being with pasts’ (Hunt 2017). Such traces may include anything that remains: flora and fauna, settlement, land use, architecture and infrastructures, institutional practices and professional knowledge, official and informal archives, inscriptions and effects of usage and neglect, engrained habits and ways of speaking, routines and protocols, bodily alterations, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, even antibodies and DNA mutations forming ´local biologies´ (Niewöhner & Lock 2018).

Receiving and following such traces, we pursue the above project aim, asking how present-day African landscapes have been shaped by the last century’s epidemics and anti-epidemic measures. We address the following four overarching research questions to achieve the project objectives outlined in the introduction.

1. What epidemic remainders endure, and how do they change form and function over time?

2. What historical events, processes and logics do they refer back to, and what memories do they carry?

3. How are they acknowledged, lived with and used by local inhabitants and health professionals? (are they recognized or ignored, commemorated or erased, feared and resented?)

4. What is their lasting potential to affect future (human and nonhuman) life, including new epidemics? 

This knowledge will help to reflect on how contemporary anti-epidemic measures are conditioned by the past, and how future epidemics emerge on layered topographies of past disease (Lachenal et al. 2016; Geissler & Prince 2020). The project will take place in four field sites in Kenya and Tanzania in East Africa, and Senegal and Ghana in West Africa. These countries have different colonial and postcolonial socio-economic and epidemic histories, and experienced a range of intense anti-epidemic interventions against specific diseases: Kenya was a key site for insecticidal disease control and experimentation that left chemical legacies; it also was an epicenter of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which created distinct social groupings and institutional forms; in Tanzania, the Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI) against regular outbreaks of childhood illnesses, was introduced as top-down intervention during the socialist era, and transformed during 1990s liberal reforms, creating today’s vaccine infrastructures; Ghana was a focus of sleeping sickness, onchocerciasis and guinea worm control, which reshaped vegetation, terrain, settlement and agriculture. Senegal, bordering the West African Ebola-epicentres in Guinea, prevented a national outbreak with its exemplary border and containment regimes. Collaboration and comparisons between sites will be stimulated by mutual field visits, joint fieldwork and project workshops in Oslo, Accra, Tanga, and Dakar.


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Oral history fieldwork in 2020 with elderly Kenyan Community Health Workers and former “Traditional Birth Attendants”, who had worked together in infectious disease research in the early 90s (Photo: Geissler)


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Published Nov. 17, 2021 4:56 PM - Last modified Dec. 8, 2021 9:45 AM