March 6, 2012

Professor Discusses Book on Work in Africa

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Recalling her experiences working in Tanzania, Prof. Stacey Langwick, anthropology, called for greater communication between proponents of modern and traditional forms of medicine in Africa at a book reading at Buffalo Street Books on Feb. 18.

Langwick, reading excerpts from her work Bodies, Politics and African Healing: The Matter of Maladies in Tanzania, explained the differences in how Tanzanians and doctors of modern medicine view traditional medicine, which encompasses herbal and spiritual forms of healing. She said she first became interested in traditional African medicine through her work as an international consultant for Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Health on a maternal child health education project, for which she helped design and pilot education modules around pregnancy, birth and early childhood care.

“I found myself really captivated by what local women were saying among themselves,” Langwick wrote in an email. “Detailed descriptions of ways to improve hygiene paled in comparison to the subtle ways they were thinking through the complicated intersection of social, political and biological factors that shaped the health of their children and families.”

Langwick said she wanted to study how Africans’ interpretations of their own health problems differed from those of public health narratives from other regions around the globe.

“I think that there isn’t a space in most public health programing to seriously engage issues around the multiple modes of healing people use and questions about intercultural communication in ways which would enable the strengths of both sides to really be heard,” Langwick said.

At the book reading, she said she hopes that modern medicine and traditional medicine can ultimately “at least get to a point where they can listen to each other, at least be open to what the other way of thinking is about sickness and the body.”

One incident that struck her, she said, was her encounter with HIV-positive Tanzanian patients who preferred traditional medicine to more modern antiretroviral drugs, which slow the progression of HIV disease. After talking to people working at a local clinic in Tanzania, she found out that many of the patients, who live in a food-scarce society, were refusing the antiretroviral drug because its side effects amplified their hunger.

“There are people in Africa who still need and want ARVs, but as programs for free distribution of ARVs expand, we are beginning to see that access is not the only issue,”  Langwick said. “In a household where there is not enough food for everyone, a drug that makes you feel powerfully hungry raises ethical issues, for the choice to eat enough food may mean that your family members are not eating enough food.”

She recalled that one of the clinic’s patients once remarked to her that “I don’t want to take food from my children.” Langwick said this comment made her realize that many question Africans’ preference for traditional medicine over modern medicine without understanding their conditions.

Through her work in the field of anthropology, Langwick said, she was able to “shed light on choices people make and why they make the choices they do.”

Ariel Smilowitz ’15, who attended the reading, said Langwick’s talk revealed the complexity of medicine in different cultures.

“It’s definitely a refreshing and eye-opening experience to learn about how different cultures adapt to the changes that are forced upon them, particularly when those changes are as earth shattering as AIDS and Malaria,” Smilowitz said. “When people today think about how they are saving so many lives with modern medicine and new technological advances, they don’t think about how the culture clash that is created by combining new and alien practices with older and more familiar traditions.”

Prof. Kathleen Long, French, also said Langwick’s work resonated with her.

“What is particularly interesting about her work is its interdisciplinary nature, and how it lends itself to wider discussions across the disciplines concerning traditional medicine and cultural differences,” Long said.

Original Author: Nicole Haejoo Chang