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  • Borders and Healers: Brokering Therapeutic Resources in Southeast Africa
  • Karen Flint
Tracy Luedke and Harry West, eds. Borders and Healers: Brokering Therapeutic Resources in Southeast Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006. vi + 223 pp. Photographs. Bibliography. Index. $65.00. Cloth. $24.95. Paper.

This edited compilation includes seven essays that focus largely on contemporary issues of healers and healing in southeast Africa. While the book is well written, it is highly theoretical and thus most likely to appeal to fellow anthropologists or those interested in the impact of evangelical and [End Page 170] independent Christian churches on contemporary healing (the topic of three essays). Medical historians or public health advocates, however, may be disappointed.

The authors' main focus is on the ways in which "borders," be they national, cultural, linguistic, scientific, religious, or spiritual, are easily and frequently traversed by healers. They argue that healers, clients, and the larger community all attribute healers' powers to their ability to cross borders, but in so doing they ensure the persistence of borders as healers shift them and (re)produce them. In this text, "healers" include "traditional" practitioners who heal through African medicine and ancestral intervention, those who heal through divine intercession—both Christian and Muslim—and biomedically trained doctors and psychotherapists. While all the chapters reemphasize the book's central thesis, readers may find it beneficial to consult Feierman's afterword before engaging the seven case studies: his text helps ground the reader in a wider theoretical, regional, and historical context. A map indicating the areas under study would have been useful.

The contributors do an excellent job of situating their own work within the existing literature. As noted in the introduction and expanded upon by Feierman, many anthropologists have previously examined the connections between power and liminality; what is new about this work is the application of that theoretical framework to healing—and the demonstrations of healers' active participation in (re)constructing such boundaries. But excepting Pfeiffer, Langwick, and Colvin, the authors do not explain their methodologies, leaving us to wonder how representative their case studies are. Nor do they explore the perceptions of the larger communities in which such churches and healers reside, sometimes making it difficult to sort out the significance of the authors' various findings (particularly when they seem to contradict one another, as in the Mozambican chapters). Pfeiffer's focus on the rise of Independent African Churches and spiritual healing challenges the basis on which the healers in West and Luedke's chapters gain their legitimacy. Pfeiffer argues that healers—"traditional" and "prophets"—are seen by the public as morally bankrupt. In a postwar, post–structural adjustment period characterized by increased disparities of wealth, would-be patients complain that healers just want their money, that they cause family strife, and that the ability of healers to straddle the boundary between healing and harming makes them both powerful and suspect. How did West's and Luedke's healers, most of whom are associated with the national organization of healers, contend with charges of moral bankruptcy—or with the spread of Pentecostal churches throughout Mozambique?

To understand the (re)construction of borders, West, Luedke, and particularly Simmons could have gone further in exploring the role played by national associations of healers. Such organizations attempt not only to draw borders around diverse healing practices, but also to systematize practices and medicines through regulation and commercialization. But how [End Page 171] do such bodies determine who is a legitimate or illegitimate healer, or (in Mozambique) set a schedule of fees for cures so radically individualized? How does the Zimbabwe association determine if herbal remedies are efficacious and thus eligible for processing and selling by the association? Such inquiries would get to the very heart of authority and power—of where borders are drawn and who has the power to establish them. On this note, Simmons seems to draw his own boundaries by using the term "Shona Medicines." Given that Zimbabwe is a multiethnic state, one is left wondering if and why "Ndebele medicines" are ignored or deemed ineffective, and why Ndebele healers may be excluded from the bounds of professionalism.

Finally, I found it troublesome that a book focused...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1555-2462
Print ISSN
0002-0206
Pages
pp. 170-172
Launched on MUSE
2008-12-17
Open Access
No
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