Tanzanians are redefining health and the forms of governance that might be promoted in its name.
Tanzanians are witnessing the emergence a new configuration of plant-based therapies that some gloss as dawa lishe (nutritious medicine). Dawa lishe attends not only to individual bodies, but also to relations between plants and humans. Remedies include both commercialized products and gardens full of therapeutic foods and nutritious herbs. As gardens are extended, therapies produced, and appetites cultivated, these nutritious medicines raise questions about the sort(s) of sovereignty critical to health in Africa today.
This photo essay depicts a set of these small-scale gardens wrapping their density and diversity around homes in urban and peri-urban parts of northern Tanzania. They are inspired by local knowledge of therapeutic plants and by global ecological movements. Gardeners foster relationships between plants and among plants, soil, people, and pollinators. One will often find beehives sheltered in these gardens—traditional and more modern hives—for both nyuki wakubwa (big bees) and nykui wadogo (literally small bees, meaning African stingless bees). By insisting that therapeutic interventions simultaneously unsettle the social-natural agreements that enable the industrialization of agriculture and biomedicine, the work of these gardens embodies a profound critique. Cultivating vitality here means not only expanding notions of health beyond humans (such as the World Health Organization’s One Health policy suggests), but also of developing a concept of health located in the complex, often violent histories that have transformed relations between people, plants, and place.
Colonialism redefined relations between people, plants, and place and shaped the contemporary landscape in Tanzania and elsewhere. The smuggling, theft, and redistribution of tropical plants in an effort to support the extension of empire remade environments (in northern Tanzania this involves sugar, tea, coffee, sisal, and green beans among others). The management of plants through plantation agriculture (with its techniques of controlling similitude) and botanical gardens (with is techniques of controlling difference) are legacies with which all efforts to innovate practices that support life and liveliness must contend. Not least of all because these colonial landscapes created the affordances on which modern agricultural and pharmacological industries have capitalized.
Landscapes, however, embody longer, deeper histories as well. Indigenous, traditional, and alternative forms of knowledge have established resources for those experimenting with new solutions to the ecological, social, and health crises. Many of these forms of knowledge articulate a relationality between foods and medicinal herbs. Not only do people cultivate plants used as foods and those used as medicines together, but the practices through which plants become medicinal or nutritious fold in on one another. Eating and healing are processes of remembering. Complex and multidimensional relationships between plants, people, animals, and soil inhere in them. Yet, dawa lishe producers refuse to be confined as traditional, or indigenous, or even as healers (“healers” are often marginalized as “custodians of knowledge” rather than central actors in the organization of social and physical landscapes). Their therapies belong to the current moment: the chronicity of AIDS and rising concerns of noncommunicable diseases, of the pharmacologicalization of therapies, and of the transnationalization of health and health interventions.
Through an attention to layered histories of plant-based knowledge in Tanzania and an openness to experiment with ecological approaches, producers of therapeutic foods and nourishing medicine are striving to innovate more effective and impactful ways of attending to social inequities and the forms of depletion, disease, and de-enfranchisement that exacerbate them. Their therapies challenge boundaries between food and medicine, traditional and modern, gift and commodity, and subsistence and commercial products. Their work refuses to design for the forms of health, value, and knowledge that define our contemporary moment. Cultivating and extending the forms of strength and vitality that make places, times, and bodies livable means considering plants and soil as more than resources and “Africa” as more than a supplier of raw materials. It means asking what sorts of sovereignty are possible when people, plants, soil, and seeds are all political actors.
Stacey Langwick, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at Cornell University, has authored Bodies, Politics and African Healing (2011) and co-edited Medicine, Mobility, and Power in Global Africa (2012). Currently, she is working on a book entitled The Politics of Habitability: Plants, Sovereignty, and Healing in a Toxic World.