Tag Archives: Public health

African Studies Association 2019

This week, the UW Press has been exhibiting at the annual African Studies Association Conference in Boston. The conference is wrapping up, but if you’re attending, there’s still one last day to stop by booth 314 for discounts on books and journals. And if you’re not in Boston, here’s a look at our new and notable titles in African Studies.


Holding the World Together, edited by Nwando Achebe and Claire Robertson

Holding the World Together, edited by Nwando Achebe and Claire Robertson

Featuring contributions from some of the most accomplished scholars on the topic, Holding the World Together explores the rich and varied ways women have wielded power across the African continent, from the precolonial period to the present. This comprehensive volume, focusing on agency and avoiding stereotypical depictions, features essays on the representation of African women, their role in national liberation movements, their incorporation into the world economy, changing family and marriage systems, economic impacts on their lives and livelihoods, their unique challenges in the areas of health and disease, and their experiences with religious fundamentalism, violence, and slavery.


Health in a Fragile State, by John M. Janzen

Health in a Fragile State by John M. Janzen

Based on extensive field research in the Manianga region of the Lower Congo, Health in a Fragile State is an anthropological account of public health and health care in the 1980s and 1990s after the collapse of the Congolese state. This work brings into focus John M. Janzen’s earlier books on African health and healing, revealing the collaborative effort by local, national, and international agencies to create viable alternative institutions to those that represented the centralized state. With this volume, Janzen documents and analyzes the realignment of existing institutions and the creation of new ones that shape health and healing. 

Throughout, Janzen explores the manner in which power and information, including science, are legitimized in the preservation and improvement of health. Institutional validity and knowledge empower citizens and health practitioners to gain the upper hand over the region’s principal diseases, including malaria, tuberculosis, typhoid, and HIV/AIDS.


African Economic History, edited by Mariana Candido, Toyin Falola, Toby Green, and Paul E. Lovejoy

African Economic History

African Economic History publishes scholarly essays in English and French on the economic history of African societies from precolonial times to the present. It features research in a variety of fields and time periods, including studies on labor, slavery, trade and commercial networks, economic transformations, colonialism, migration, development policies, social and economic inequalities, and poverty. The audience includes historians, economists, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, policymakers, and a range of other scholars interested in African economies—past and present.


Spirit Children, by Aaron R. Denham

Spirit Children by Aaron R. Denham

Some babies and toddlers in parts of West Africa are considered spirit children—nonhumans sent from the forest to cause misfortune and destroy the family. These are usually deformed or ailing infants, or children whose births coincide with tragic events or who display unusual abilities. Aaron R. Denham offers a nuanced ethnographic study of this phenomenon in Northern Ghana that examines both the motivations of the families and the structural factors that lead to infanticide. He also turns the lens on the prevailing misunderstandings about this controversial practice. Denham offers vivid accounts of families’ life-and-death decisions that engage the complexity of the context, local meanings, and moral worlds of those confronting a spirit child.


Ghana Studies, edited by Carina Ray and Kofi Baku

Ghana Studies

Ghana Studies is the journal of the Ghana Studies Association, an international affiliate of the African Studies Association. Published annually, Ghana Studies strives to provide a forum for cutting edge original research about Ghana’s society, culture, environment, and history. All of the scholarly articles in Ghana Studies are peer-reviewed by two anonymous referees, coordinated by an editorial team based in both North America and Ghana. Since its first issue in 1998, Ghana Studies has published significant work by leading scholars based in Ghana, the United States, Canada, and Europe. In addition, Ghana Studies features occasional material, source reports, and book reviews. It also serves to provide official notice of fellowships and prizes awarded by the Ghana Studies Association.

Finding Empathy Through Troubling Stories

Aaron Denham, author of Spirit Children: Illness, Poverty, and Infanticide in Northern Ghana, comments on the importance of reading about distressing subjects. His book is published today in the University of Wisconsin Press series Africa and the Diaspora: History, Politics, Culture

As I began writing about infanticide and the “spirit child” phenomenon in Northern Ghana, I became interested in how narratives of vulnerability and difficult human experiences can evoke powerful emotional and imaginative reactions in listeners and readers. Spirit children are, most often, disabled or ill children believed to be spirits sent to destroy the family. In their fear, and with limited treatment options, families occasionally hasten their child’s death.

When speaking about my research to friends and the public, my descriptions of families’ difficult decisions would often induce silence or provoke awkward replies. After one presentation depicting a family’s struggles to care for a spirit child, a well-intentioned literature professor suggested I bring an MRI machine to the remote savanna to scan the children to determine if they are indeed spirits. In other venues, some people vehemently denied the fact that infanticide was even occurring. The most powerful responses, however, come from parents with young children. I soon learned to temper my descriptions after a friend became distressed when I casually explained the grim reality one family faced. She vividly imagined her infant confronting similar circumstances.

Some authors and anthropologists have written about the value of attending to their own emotions and the anxieties that arise while conducting research. George Devereux stressed that ethnographers should scrutinize their reactions and blind spots, because our emotional worlds shape the ways we experience and interpret other people. This self-attunement is useful for readers too. How might our internal world shape our understanding of what we read?

When confronted with difficult material, our emotions and anxieties can enhance or limit comprehension. When I’ve discussed infanticide, I have found that people quickly gravitate to familiar but experience-distant sociobiological paradigms. These are often encapsulated in the question: “Considering their circumstances, doesn’t infanticide make good environmental sense?” Although at times reasonable, biofundamentalist accounts can foreclose deeper moral engagements with human experience. People defer to purely objective explanations to distance anxiety and move disturbing knowledge to more familiar and manageable terms. Devereux described this process as interpretive undercomprehension. This dilemma results in anxiously clinging to a point of view simply because the reader can “tolerate that particular interpretation, while considering all other (psychologically intolerable) interpretations unscholarly and erratic.” Jacques Lacan described a similar process that he termed the “passion for ignorance,” or the desire not to know, and to want nothing more to do with knowledge that is too intense.

Authors leverage readers’ internal worlds in many ways. In my writing, I wanted to bridge diverse cultural experiences to confront the perceived strangeness of infanticide. I wanted to encourage moments of mutual recognition, if not always an empathetic attunement. The challenge has been in finding a balance between presenting the visceral realities of people’s lives and developing emotionally tolerable narratives that facilitate a deeper level of understanding.

Readers can also contemplate their own reactions to emotional subjects. Stories that confront cultural difference and distressing practices can evoke anxiety or revulsion. In these cases, we can maintain our passion for ignorance, or we can take the opportunity to contemplate the reason for these sentiments and reflect on the complexity of our shared humanity. Challenging stories can help build empathy and inspire us to action. Moreover, as we open ourselves to difficult material, we do more than learn more about the lives of others. If we pay attention to what a text evokes within, we can ultimately come away learning more about ourselves.

Aaron R. Denham is the director of the Master of Development Studies and Global Health program and a senior lecturer in anthropology at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He formerly was a mental health provider for children and families, a fellow of the American Psychoanalytic Association, and a volunteer with Engineers Without Borders.