“Research is Our Resource”: Surviving Politics and Experiments at an African Cancer Institute
My current book project is a historical-ethnography of a cancer hospital in Uganda. Founded as a collaborative effort between the American National Cancer Institute and the Makerere Medical School’s department of surgery, the Uganda Cancer Institute weathered the storm of Idi Amin’s murderous dictatorship, the vagaries of structural adjustment, and an HIV epidemic. Today approximately 60 beds at the Institute provide public oncology goods to a population catchment of approximately 40 million Africans in the Great Lakes region. Research is Our Resource, examines how an exceptional group of health workers navigated the malignant politics of the Ugandan state since the 1960s. We follow these African health workers as they keep a cancer hospital running, long after the internationally funded cancer research projects that transferred the tools of oncology to Uganda themselves ended. The book is both a social history of postcolonial east Africa, and a case study of how medical research collaborations are transformed by political crisis, the social needs of patients and their caretakers, and changing scientific priorities.
Where There Is No Incinerator
At the African Studies Association meeting in November 2015, I am debuting my new research on the history of medical waste and occupational safety in Africa at a double panel on “Toxic States: Scales of Waste.” This paper presents my new work on medical waste, the politics of disposability, and exposure in African health care settings. In 2014, the Ebola epidemic underscored the challenges that African health workers face daily as they navigate public health systems gutted by austerity measures, the ravages of war, and global health initiatives which privilege bio-technological solutions to disease control. Ebola health workers were hailed as Time Persons of the Year for their courage and care. But Ebola treatment camps demonstrated a grim racialized disparity between African and Western practitioners. African gravediggers wore flimsy facemasks and rubber boots, while American ER doctors donned Hazmat suits. In the United States, we estimate that 55 gallons of medical waste are produced daily in treating a single Ebola patient. Ebola treatment in West Africa is “brutal triage.” This paper analyzes these unsettling disparities and contradictions. It also lays the theoretical and methodological approach for the broader project, Where There Is No Incinerator, which will examine the histories of medical waste and occupational safety of health workers in 20th century Africa.
My second new research project situates the 1970s—a period where Ugandans say everyday survival was contingent almost entirely on the illicit—in the much longer history of the circulation of counterfeit and illicit goods in East Africa, focusing on the time period between 1880 and the present.