Chinese Medicine in East Africa: An Intimacy with Strangers
Prof. Elisabeth Hsu, University of Oxford
How might a book on “Chinese medicine in East Africa” contribute to the topic of “Reproductive labour”? Initial fieldwork pointed in the direction of Chinese medicines being used for chronic conditions and palliative care, (e.g. HIV/AIDS), as they are in the global north, and for post-colonial disorders, such as diabetes and hypertension. Yet long-term research over 8 years (with yearly one month fieldwork) found that the work of Chinese medical practitioners was surprisingly efficacious when they were able to create an “intimacy with strangers” in the consultation room and beyond. By looking not only at the patient-practitioner dyad, and by widening the ethnographic gaze to include the affordances of material culture items (seen in a Latourian association with human beings), it was possible to foreground the positive role of these material-culture-items-in-association-with-human-beings as ‘third players’ in Chinese medical practice. They appeared to derive a significant amount of their effectiveness through their exoticness, and precisely through playing the role of being ‘other’ (not unlike Simmel’s ‘stranger’), they made that moments of intimate openness could arise.
Now, in the context of migration, ‘the other’ is often met with apprehension, and even with negativity, but in contexts of human reproduction people are aware that they depend on a union with an other, who (if a human being) / which (if a bodily substance) may still be encountered with apprehension, initially, but nevertheless is expected to have a life-engendering and overall positive effect. It is therefore remarkable that the mobile Chinese practitioners - who due to their exoticness and contact to a powerful distant place, generally were comprehended as ‘the quintessential other’ - managed to make themselves seen as being expert in dealing with issues to do with ‘the other’ in social contexts of reproductive labour. Fieldwork showed that sexual-prowess-enhancing medicines for men and beauty-and-attractiveness-enhancing procedures, mostly sought by women, were found to be of great significance to some of the local and regional clients for enhancing their fecundity.
Usually, social scientists link the business with sexual-performance-enhancing pharmaceuticals to the post-colonial leisure industry and neoliberal economics. While those certainly play a role too, this study tries to explain how ethnobiological equivalents of such pharmaceuticals became available in East Africa’s health markets as Chinese medical practitioners inserted themselves into its urban textures. The Chinese practitioners could not evade being categorised as ‘other’, but they managed to imbue the concept of ‘the other’ with positive, creative and life-enhancing powers, as is ‘the other’ in the context of reproduction. We note the ingenuity with which the social configurations and material culture associations that they negotiated, altered the perception of ‘the migrant other’ away from being a purely negative threat.