Anthropologist explores toxicity and healing in East Africa

For almost 20 years, Stacey Langwick, associate professor of anthropology, has conducted research on medicine and healing in East Africa. In a lecture sponsored by the Institute of Comparative Modernities April 11, she explored how concerns over toxicity shape public conversations about the forms of nourishment and modes of healing that make places livable. The talk was based on research for her forthcoming book, “Thriving: Plants, Sovereignty and Healing in a Toxic World.”

For the past four years, Langwick has worked with producers of therapeutic foods and herbal medicines in Tanzania. She noticed that those developing therapeutic foods and herbal medicines were also developing a language to describe the intimate entanglements between chemicals and modern landscapes and bodies, as well as a set of practices to intervene. Tanzanians, she said, describe toxicity not only as a problem of dumping industrial waste but also as the result of everyday life: pesticides on food; plastics and aluminum in household supplies; medications to treat chronic diseases.

“In Tanzania, toxicity is the double-bind out of which life grows,” said Langwick. “Efforts to address it, to find ways of speaking of it, are efforts to forge a space for growth, for argument and for action. Contemporary herbalism – in particular, the production of therapeutic foods and herbal medicines – has emerged as a dynamic space for public debate… herbal producers have come to articulate what I call a ‘politics of habitability.’”

Plant therapies respond to more than individual illnesses. They engender a space to respond to the radical transformation of relations between plants and people introduced by colonialism. They strive to intervene by reconfiguring these relationships. Langwick argued that the emerging herbals industry is a distinctly 21st-century phenomenon. The producers of therapeutic foods and herbal medicines she worked with draw not only on indigenous plants and local healers’ expertise, but also on web-based investigations, scientific research in African, European and North American universities, Chinese healers, Indian spiritual leaders, permaculture workshops and sustainable agricultural practices.

Langwick drew primarily on her field work with the Tanzanian organization Training, Research, Monitoring and Evaluation on Gender and AIDS (TRMEGA), which strives to support vulnerable and marginalized people in part through their ability to grow therapeutic plants. Because the executive director of TRMEGA also serves as the Slow Food Movement convivium leader for northern Tanzania, TRMEGA has connected with international food sovereignty movements.

“Plant-based therapies are folded into TRMEGA’s work,” said Langwick. “For TRMEGA, gardens – organic, cultivated without chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, full of therapeutic plants, spreading from one to another and growing up around homes and schools – are remedy and relation; resource and inspiration; they are momentum and growth and the very material of individual, institutional and community extension.” TRMEGA’s projects include gardens for communities, homeless children’s shelters and elementary schools.

Gardens and gardening can create “dense, vital spaces for life and growth and sharing,” said Langwick. In these efforts, sustainable agricultural practices and alternative healing practices are drawn together to imagine new “ways to cultivate and extend the forms of strength and vitality that make places, times and bodies livable again,” she said. “Producers of therapeutic foods and nutritional medicines are simultaneously articulating the toxicity of everyday life as a problem and cultivating a diverse set of ways to live through this toxicity.”

The talk was co-sponsored by the Africana Studies and Research Center, the Department of Anthropology and the Institute for African Development.

This story also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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