Researching the history of chronic disease in (South) Africa is both a daunting and energizing task, in part because there is so much excellent scholarship coming out in real time. This post starts a monthly series on what we are reading and talking about in London. This month’s stack is decidedly rich and heavy, reflecting the need for extra sustenance during the darkness and dreariness of winter. It includes critical ethnographies and histories of global health, new approaches to South African history, prize-winning African literature, and a necessary manifesto on the possibilities of social action in troubled times.

Metabolic Living: Food, Fat, and the Absorption of Illness in India by Harris Solomon

Metabolic Living

My first book on the list is Harris Solomon’s Metabolic Living, which is the latest in a relatively new and exciting series on Critical Global Health, edited by Joao Biehl and Vincanne Adams for Duke University Press. (For more on the series, see the Medical Anthropology Theory website). Solomon takes us deep into the lives of everyday Mumbai residents as they imbibe food, regulate and treat chronic illnesses such as diabetes, and navigate the therapeutic and capitalist landscape of the metropolis. I have yet to read the book, but I am looking forward to what promises to be an ethnographically sensitive and theoretically nuanced critique of food and disease transitions in the Global South.

Harris Solomon, Metabolic Living: Food, Fat, and the Absorption of Illness in India, Durham: Duke University Press, 2016. (https://www.dukeupress.edu/metabolic-living)

Traces of the Future: An Archaeology of Medical Science in Twenty-First Century Africa

Traces of the Future

Historians of health and healing in Africa are turning their attention to the practices and histories of biomedicine on the continent. Rather than focusing on the power dynamics of colonial medical encounters, or iatrogenic consequences of disease eradication campaigns, or Africans as exclusively the subjects of medical research, this latest wave of scholarship focuses on the contributions of Africans themselves to biomedical research and care. Traces of the Future is the latest contribution from a group of researchers, originally based in the London School of Hygiene, as the Anthropologies of African Bioscience group, who have worked together since 2005 – and continue to do so. The book provides an ethnographically textured, visually stunning, and historically fascinating look at the past and present of scientific and medical research at sites in Nigeria, Senegal, Cameroon, Tanzania, and Kenya.

Paul Wenzel Geissler, Guillaume Lachenal, John Manton, and Noemi Tousignant, eds., Traces of the Future: An Archaeology of Medical Science in Twenty-First Century Africa, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. (http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/distributed/T/bo25381747.html)

A History of Global Health: Interventions into the Lives of Other Peoples by Randal M. Packard

A History of Global Health

Is global health “new,” or is it the latest iteration of health improvement initiatives and disease eradication schemes dating back to the colonial period, and or the international health programs of the Cold War? Randall Packard’s tour de force of a book provides a sweeping overview of continuity and change in health promotion efforts originating from the United States in Europe and intervening “into the lives of other peoples,” often across the global south. Whether crafting a syllabus on the history of global health or looking for a lucid critique of technological fixes for intractable social problems, I hope this book will be on many a syllabus to come.

Randall M. Packard, A History of Global Health: Interventions into the Lives of Other Peoples, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016. (https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/content/history-global-health)

Breathing Race Into the Machine: The Surprising Career of the Spirometer from Plantation to Genetics by Lundy Braun

Breathing Race into the Machine

The spirometer is an instrument that measures lung capacity. But as Lundy Braun elegantly demonstrates, the spirometer is not a neutral or a-political technological object. This book takes us deep into the history of the role of the spirometer in shaping understandings of biological and racial differences in respiratory health, often at the expense of taking racism and occupational health seriously. I have yet to dive in to the book, but it promises to offer a fresh point of entry into the broader historiography on race, lung health, and mining in South Africa.

Lundy Braun, Breathing Race Into the Machine: The Surprising Career of the Spirometer from Plantation to Genetics, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014. (https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/breathing-race-into-the-machine)

The Art of Life in South Africa by Daniel Magaziner

The Art of Life in South Africa

What does it mean to make art in a time of oppression? How can small institutions shed light on big histories? What sort of stories can we tell about apartheid era South Africa when we free ourselves from the tired categories of oppression, capitalism, and racism? In a remarkable, ambitious, and beautifully written book, Dan Magaziner does just that by empathetically rendering the history of Ndaleni Art School, situated in KwaZulu Natal. Magaziner will be coming to UCL in the spring to talk about his book. In the meantime, if you are interested in art and interested in South Africa, do visit the British Museum’s exhibition on “South Africa: The Art of a Nation.”

Daniel Magaziner, The Art of Life in South Africa, Athens: Ohio University Press, 2016. (http://www.ohioswallow.com/book/The+Art+of+Life+in+South+Africa)

Lidudumalingani, “Memories We Lost”

This year’s Caine Prize for African Writing goes to South African Lidudumalingani. The short story brings us into the intimate politics of care, mental health, family, and village life. You can read more about the story and can access it here.

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit

Hope in the Dark

2016. Need we say more? Originally written in 2003 in the early days of George W. Bush’s disastrous Iraq War, Rebecca Solnit’s delightful and elegant meditation on hope and social action in dark times is experiencing renewed interest. And for good reason. This is a pragmatic and practical set of tools for moving beyond a state of paralysis or hopelessness. Highly recommended.

Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016. (https://www.haymarketbooks.org/books/791-hope-in-the-dark)

About Marissa Mika

At UCL, Marissa Mika works with the research group on critical histories of chronic disease in Africa. Focusing on South Africa, she researches chronicity, co-morbidity, and the synergy between infectious and noncommunicable disease burdens. She emphasises the material practices of making knowledge about morbidity and mortality – from the diagnostic pathology lab, to the autopsy table, to the home testing kit, to the courtroom.