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7. Health, Illness, and Healing in African Societies

Grosz-Ngaté, Maria ePub

Tracy J. Luedke

In African societies, as elsewhere in the world, health and illness are experienced both at the level of the individual body and at the level of the social body. Individual suffering often reveals social structures and tensions, for example when a child’s illness strains family relationships or when a treatable disease proves fatal among the poorer members of a society; healing practices may also create new kinds of community, as when a doctor and patient form a lasting bond or when the pursuit of health care spawns a social movement. The experiences associated with health, illness, and healing always reflect and affect social relationships, whether they forge, preclude, strengthen, or strain them. This chapter addresses health in sub-Saharan Africa as a product and a project of social contexts ranging in scale from the intimacy of the family to the broad power dynamics of the global political economy.

Before turning to questions of well-being and illness in specific cultural contexts, it is important to start by considering the comparative framework of biomedical assessments of the health of the world’s populations. In doing so, it becomes clear that the frequency and severity of debilitating illnesses are closely tied to political and economic power dynamics; in short, patterns of poverty are closely associated with patterns of disease. Africa’s economic position correlates with its disease profile, which includes a high prevalence of communicable diseases, high maternal mortality and infant and child mortality rates, and notable effects of pandemics. Overall health indicators reveal that health is generally poor on the continent—the average life expectancy in Africa in 2009 was fifty-four years, which makes it the world region with the lowest life expectancy rate (WHO 2011b: 54). According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the leading causes of mortality in Africa (based on 2004 figures) are HIV/AIDS, lower respiratory infections, diarrheal diseases, and malaria, in that order. Communicable diseases are the primary threat to Africans’ health, accounting for 70 percent of the causes of death (WHO 2008a: 54).

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5. Religions in Africa

Grosz-Ngaté, Maria ePub

John H. Hanson

Spirit possessions, harvest festivals, and other activities associated with African traditional religions (or religions with African roots) remain vital, but attendance at Christian churches and Muslim mosques in Africa has increased significantly during the last century. From 1900 to 2010 the number of Christians in Africa grew from less than 10 million to 470 million, more than 20 percent of the world Christian community. The number of Muslims in Africa also grew to more than 450 million, over 25 percent of the global Muslim community. This chapter discusses the endurance of religions with African roots and how Africans have accepted, proselytized, and elaborated upon Christianity and Islam during the past two hundred years.

Religion refers to ideas and practices concerning societal relations with unseen powers. It is associated with prophecies, moral directives, and explanations of the world, and religious followers forge bonds with others through rituals, experience ecstatic states in trances, and obtain healing and comfort through rituals, supplications, and other activities. The complete range of religious experiences is difficult to study, but scholars can analyze religious ideas and discuss the roles and actions of religious specialists and their followers in specific times and places.

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3. Social Relations: Family, Kinship, and Community

Grosz-Ngaté, Maria ePub

Maria Grosz-Ngaté

News accounts of violent conflict in Africa frequently make reference to “tribe” and “tribalism” as potent ingredients of discord. The use of “tribe” in the African context is a legacy of colonialism and the research of early anthropologists. Anthropologists wanted to know how African societies without centralized leadership maintained order and stability while colonial officials demarcated African societies for the purpose of rule, ignoring complexities, interactions between groups, and the fluidity of boundaries. The persistent characterization of African populations as “tribes” gives the appearance of timelessness and glosses over the different forms of political organization that existed in the past. It implicitly suggests that tribe (or ethnic group) is the primary source of identity and mode of sociopolitical organization on the continent. It also obscures the existence of more important forms of identification, relatedness, and belonging that may play a role in, counteract, or facilitate the resolution of conflict. Like people in other parts of the world, Africans are enmeshed in a range of institutions and identify with multiple collectivities. An individual may be a mother, wife, sister, and daughter; a cultivator, cloth dyer, or teacher; a member of an age group, a participant in a local or national women’s association, and a member of an ethnic group as well as a citizen of a nation-state. These social positions and identities overlap and cross-cut each other; which of them takes precedence at any given time depends on the context.

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4. Making a Living: African Livelihoods

Grosz-Ngaté, Maria ePub

Gracia Clark and Katherine Wiley

Impressive tenacity and ingenuity enable Africans to survive and even prosper under extremely challenging circumstances. The widespread stereotype of the passive victim crumbles away in the face of Africans’ incessant efforts to protect their families’ interests and ensure security and progress for the next generation. It is a struggle that some people shirk and that many do not win. Even so, people’s agency must be taken seriously. Continuous experimentation and innovation are among the legacies of African societies in every part of the continent, as people make their living often under severe resource constraints and despite external shocks such as the recent spiraling prices of gasoline and corn.

Analyzing the strategies that people employ for preserving and adapting families and communities to these constraints has led researchers to adopt the term “livelihood” to indicate the paid and unpaid activities that together sustain communities and individuals over the long term. Conventional U.S. economic analysis makes a sharp distinction between work and family, confining the economy to the work side, measured primarily in monetary terms as gross domestic product (GDP), the value of goods and services produced in a country in a given year. Even calculations that try to include the production of goods and services that are not part of the official record, such as farming for direct consumption or using unpaid family labor, often disregard the domestic and cultural work that maintain a family’s well-being over the long run, from cooking and cleaning to the values and social institutions that keep people working together.

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11. African Film

Grosz-Ngaté, Maria ePub

Akin Adesokan

It is a truism of African cinema that one cannot productively discuss the films that make up the field without keeping in mind the social and economic conditions under which they are made. Fifty years after the first feature film to be written, produced, and directed by an African, and with this cinematic tradition becoming as globally important an art form as African literature and the Afropop component of world music, economic, political, and cultural factors continue to be central to its full understanding. It is therefore not surprising that, across three generations, issues of political and cultural identity are a main topical preoccupation of African filmmakers. For various reasons younger, often foreign-based filmmakers have sharply reacted in their work against the biases of their predecessors who came from a background of anticolonial activism, thus showing the limitations of earlier practices. However, sociopolitical situations in contemporary African countries, as well as the larger economic order in the world, are so crucial to most forms of cultural production that they cannot be totally ignored. As a result, filmmakers have developed a more complex treatment of sociopolitical issues. Emphasis has shifted in their works from a simple notion of rejection as a way of asserting identity to the understanding that identity usually results from a number of different factors. They have begun to experiment with forms and genres, drawing on music, dance, youth culture, fashion, and sundry expressive forms and reflecting greater awareness of cinematic traditions from different parts of the world.

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