Cultivating Vitality

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.

Alex Uroki is the founder of EdenMark Nutritive Supplies, a company that produces therapeutic foods and nutritious medicines in Tanzania. I first met the Vice President of Slow Food International in his clinic in Bomang’ombe, a small town at the foot of the western slope of Mt Kilimanjaro. Uroki runs a farm, production facilities, a clinic, and pharmacies. In addition, he places his therapies on consignment in other venues in Tanzania and Kenya. Here he is shown in one of his processing rooms. Stacey Langwick

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.

Mchaichai (dried lemongrass) produced and packaged by Dorkia Enterprises, a small scale, entrepreneurial initiative in northern Tanzania. The left side of the label announces the benefits (faida) of drinking mchaichai, “It removes poisons from the whole body—those [poisons] that come from the food whose growth we have cut short, aluminum pots, steel wire, chemical medicines [a phrase that means synthetic pharmaceuticals as well as synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides], mental stress, nicotine which is from cigarettes and their smoke which is the case of lung cancer. It cleans the kidneys; it removes all the residue stopping urine/plugging up the bladder (especially in elders). It returns a quicker memory and it puts the body in a good and lively state after using.” Stacey Langwick
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.



Dorcas Kibona of Dorkia Enterprises, a small women-run business that sources and produces therapeutic foods. Dorcas sources plant matter through women’s church groups as well as larger scale organic farmers. She also spends a great deal of time cultivating the appetites for therapeutic, nourishing foods from an experimental collaboration she had with a café in the Municipal Offices in downtown Moshi to her current collaboration with a nongovernmental association providing palliative care to the elderly. One of her products, Kitarasa flour, made from a banana indigenous to the Kilimanjaro region, was awarded a prize by the Business Registration and Licensing Agency (BRELA) as one of the top 50 Tanzanian brands in 2017. Stacey Langwick


Helen Nguya, the founder and director of Training, Research, Monitoring, and Evaluation on Gender and AIDS (TRMEGA) and convivum leader for northern Tanzania for Slow Food International, advises Ernesto on a new garden. He is donating the use of some of his land for a TRMEGA community garden. Helen and I carry a car load of seedlings and cuttings to him, extending the demonstration garden at TRMEGA to this new community garden on the other side of Arusha. Other TRMEGA members contribute their time and energy to planting and tending to the garden. Stacey Langwick


Helen Nguya saw the impact of plant medicines and gardens through her work with Jane Satiel Mwalyego. While caring for her children and those of her brothers who had passed away, Jane became overwhelmed. She stopped taking her antiretroviral drugs (ARVs). She found herself unable to get out of bed, unable to provide for those she cared for. Through TRMEGA she found social and physical support. She started taking her ARVs as well as mlonge (moringa oleifera). Her strength returned enough to start tending to herself, her family, and her gardens again. She now catalyzes new support groups and runs the TRMEGA production gardens. She raises chickens, feeding them the remnants of the gardens and in turn using their manure to fertilize her soils. The eggs she eats, feeds to her grandchildren, and sells. Cultivating vitality means cultivating particular relations between people, animals, and plants. Jane’s bravery and vigor have inspired many in the villages of northern Tanzania as well as in the Tanzanian parliament where she recently spoke to national leaders. Stacey Langwick


A man lifts a bucket of liquid manure being prepared for Rose Machange’s demonstration home garden. Each Saturday people gather at Rose’s home to learn new techniques for developing healthy soils, tending to plants organically, choosing particularly nutrient dense crops, and recycling water. While Rose also runs a large NGO demonstration garden, she recently began a home garden to show how a small area can be designed to contribute to a household’s diet and income. Note the sack gardens that line the porch as well. Her techniques make the most of a small space and are also useful for people who do not have a plot they are free to cultivate. Stacey Langwick


This is soil from the compost pile in the garden of “Mama Shujaa” (see final image). Like other producers of therapeutic foods and nourishing medicine, she sees the vitality of soil as intimately tied to the efficacies and nourishments of the plants that grow in it. Composting, the use of animal manure, techniques such as “double digging,” and other labors to make soils lively and vital again are central to the healing work. Stacey Langwick


Rose Machange runs the demonstration gardens for Women Development for Science and Technology Association (WODSTRA). She also leads the women’s cooperative, Umoja wa Maendeleo Ngurudoto Food Community (UMANGU), which among other things produces stingless bee honey, a highly desirable product in Tanzania for both its taste and healing properties. Stacey Langwick


Traditional beehives of one of the members of the UMANGU women’s cooperative, which produce part of her contribution to the cooperative’s stingless bee honey. The cooperative’s honey is cleared for export by the Tanzanian Food and Drug Administration and the Tanzania Bureau of Standards. It has entered the global Slow Food movement’s Arc of Taste and is promoted as a valuable indigenous food. Stacey Langwick


“Mama Shujaa wa Chakula” (The hero mother of food)! Here a mama who runs a large organic garden outside Arusha demonstrates how she teaches children to cultivate plants with whatever they have. Children take any thrown-away container they can find, such as this old Sprite bottle. They drill a hole in it, fill it with compost from Mama Shujaa’s pile, and plant a seed. Stacey Langwick

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.

Cite as: Langwick, Stacey. 2018. “Cultivating Vitality.” Anthropology News website, January 24, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.748

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