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Reviewed by:
  • Traces of the Future: An Archeology of Medical Science in Twenty-First Century Africa by Paul Wenzel Geissler, Guillaume Lachenal, John Manton, and Noemi Tousignant
  • Leslie Sabakinu
Paul Wenzel Geissler, Guillaume Lachenal, John Manton, and Noemi Tousignant. Traces of the Future: An Archeology of Medical Science in Twenty-First Century Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. Contents. Bibliographies. Credits. 255pp. $28.50. Cloth. ISBN: 9781783207251.

This collection of essays presents the results of historians’ and anthropologists’ journeys to medical and scientific sites on the African continent. The chief emphasis here is on exploring the remains of medical infrastructures—leftovers of scientific investigations and laboratory facilities—not only as traces of the past, but also as heritage sites through which memory, [End Page 261] nostalgia, and narrative, past, present and future are intrinsically bound up with one another. The exploration of these vestiges and debris also testifies to the dreams and expectations of modern science. These traces are an essential space for examining the afterlife of these institutions and understanding how the colonial and postcolonial heritage have been appropriated and negotiated.

The book is organized around fives case studies that focus on specific colonial and postcolonial medical and scientific sites in Senegal, Tanzania, Kenya, Cameroon, and Nigeria. At each site the remains reveal a different story of the past. Uzuakoli Leprosy Center (Nigeria), built by the Methodist Church, is remembered more for the musical performances that took place there than for its medical practice. Ayos (Cameroon) was founded first as a sleeping sickness camp by Germans before becoming an important biopolitical installation of the French empire. Amani (Tanzania), a research station that was shaped in turn by German, French, and Soviet scientists, has left behind not just a sense of disappointment and failed dreams, but also the conflicted memories of decolonization and Africanization of the medical field. Niakhar was the postcolonial Senegalese demographic center, and Kisumu is a global health city in western Kenya whose past aspirations and possibilities for international collaboration are still alive in peoples’ memories.

The book describes how these five institutions were woven into the social texture of everyday life and how they currently participate in both the maintenance and the erasure of local memories. These sites also invite us not only to interrogate the future of medicine in Africa, but also to explore and reflect on the role of material traces that connect the past to the present. Even though some of the institutions have disappeared, while others have been rebuilt or repurposed, they all function as “lieux de memoire,” and also constitute what the authors call “the trace of the future.” They function, therefore, as dynamic and evolving testimony to the continual reassessment of African history, culture, and identity. The authors conclude by raising concerns about the preservation of African scientific knowledge and the need to hear the voices of African scientists themselves.

Traces of the Future is an intriguing and innovative book that documents the afterlife of medical and scientific traces in Africa, as well as the nostalgia and tension that remain. Using a combination of methods, including ethnography, oral interviews, and exploration of material traces, the authors compensate for the limits and often nonexistence of colonial and postcolonial archives on this subject matter. The rich photographic archives and biographies of former fieldworkers and their descendants contribute to the footprints of the past of these institutions. Trace of the Future offers a very enriching and insightful vision of a fascinating and understudied topic. [End Page 262]

Leslie Sabakinu
University of Wisconsin
Madison, Wisconsin


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pp. 261-262
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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