Healing, Wellness, and Religion in East Africa: Modern Historical Perspectives

AHA Session 100
Friday, January 7, 2011: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Grand Ballroom Salon B (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Donna A. Patterson, Wellesley College

Session Abstract

Before, throughout, and following the colonial encounter in East Africa, local populations have drawn on a diverse pool of resources for healthcare and wellness maintenance. The widespread prevalence of spiritual healing has remained fairly constant, even as some countries have developed sophisticated systems for biomedical care. The papers on this panel examine the how religious entities shaped healing in Rwanda and Uganda since the early 20th century. Esoteric agrarian and pastoralist ritual, Christianity, and Islam have shaped healing in several specific contexts, and these influences combine within practices at least as often as they separate distinct groups of adherents. Noting how this phenomenon creates uniquely African discourses of health and wellness, anthropologist and historian Stephen Feierman wrote that “health, like health care, is resistant to directed change from above.” We read these localized links between religion and healing, however, not necessarily as arbiters of resistance so much as they are pragmatic measures consistent with a historical trajectory of practices that incorporate spiritual life into holistic conceptions of ethical, physical, social and spiritual wellness. The tensions that emerge in such contexts have much to reveal about East African discourses of wellness. These discourses provide indicators of how practices of healing travel across time and space as East African communities create moral worlds and shape health pragmatically, often despite turbulent political and social shifts.           

In keeping with these historical consistencies, this panel examines a variety of practices that hold in common their connection to distinctly African understandings of illness and health. Contemporary performative practices of spirit possession and mediumship in southern Uganda derive from a long history of similar performance practices across the Interlacustrine Region. Reading these performances as vehicles for valuable indigenous knowledge leads to their consideration as a type of African epistemology. Early in the history of Anglican missions in Uganda, the Church Missionary Society established settlements for patients suffering from leprosy. The colonial-era history of these settlements offers a much different perspective on how the religion shaped healing practices. Trans-national themes emerge in two examinations of how the Church of Uganda shaped health care during times of war, first for Uganda, then for Rwanda. The first uses oral histories and archival sources to investigate how a mission hospital in Idi Amin’s Uganda functioned, in spite of the breakdown of the rest of the medical system, by routing the medical supply chain through Rwanda. The second looks at the pre-genocide Tutsi refugee experience in Uganda. These refugees’ association with the Anglican Church of Uganda, along with their experience in Ugandan refugee camps, shapes their role in post-genocide Rwanda today. All of these studies contribute to a broader narrative concerning the modern history of healing in East Africa, particularly as it relates to religion. This narrative takes seriously the notion that African epistemologies shape developing health care policies, particularly given histories of directed change vs. local practices. At the same time, it recognizes the impact of religious plurality on discourses of health and wellness in Interlacustrine East Africa.

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