Africa in Our Lives: Nancy Hunt

Over the next few weeks, the African Studies Program will profile several presenters for our upcoming conference, BIG STORIES + CLOSE (UP) RESEARCH: Health and Science in the African World. The first of these profiles features Professor Nancy Hunt of the University of Michigan. Since earning her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1992, Dr. Hunt has studied everything from colonial letter writing to the acoustics of war and humanitarianism. 

Hometown: Ann Arbor, Michigan
Field: African history & anthropology: the medical, the religious, the everyday; especially in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

“Much wider than disease or medicine, health opens analysis to the everyday, to the practical, the religious, and the therapeutic, to wealth and social reproduction, without eliding death, affliction, pathogens, and scars,” – Nancy Hunt (Photo courtesy of Nancy Hunt).

What inspired your interest in Africa?

Experience: of difference, race, and racism as a child. First, sensing all that stirred around the Civil Rights movement in the United States from 1964 on. Later, sensing during a year spent as a special student at the University of Ghana in 1975-76.

Two moments were transformative. As a five-year-old first-grader in Springfield, Massachusetts, my teacher was black (“mulatto” was the word we heard). She gave me an inspiring book about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. Then, when I was about eleven and relocated with my family to the all-white, prosperous suburb of Longmeadow, my parents became involved in a highly opposed movement to desegregate zoning in our neighborhood. About the same time, my mother joined a program to bring black children from Springfield’s projects to play with us in Longmeadow during some summer weeks. So it was that we would go pick up Brenda and then at day’s end take her home: an experience of stark contrasts, with my liberal mother insisting as we crossed boundaries that we lock the car doors. When I admired Brenda’s (in my eyes) gorgeous, gold-colored earrings, she pulled them out with delight to show me, and I saw her two small bits of bristle taken from a corn broom.

A light bulb of sorts about Africa, slave life, dignity, dearth, and perplexity went off within me, even though I didn’t pursue the inspiration until I found myself a freshman in the stifling, hyper-affluent atmosphere of a peripheral, awkwardly located East Coast university. Determined to bolt, I discovered Tufts still had a defunct study abroad program to Ghana from the 1960s on its books. It also had a remarkable and very generous dean; this historian of Angola, C. Diane Christensen, handed me application forms and helped me get prepared intellectually for this year abroad.

What is the most-thumbed book on your bookshelf?

These days: Mark Jackson, ed. The Oxford Handbook of the History of Medicine.

And: Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects; Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature; Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past; Gayatri Spivak, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization; and Sony Labou Tansi, The Shameful State.

How has the time you spent in Africa shaped your interests and career?

Tremendously. But so too has time spent in North America and Europe with experiences in archives and museums and in conversations with others working on Africa or medical cultures.

Tell us a bit about your field research.

During 1975-76 in Ghana, I did instinctive ethnography about Accra markets and a women’s dormitory in a major West African university, Legon. In 1985-86, I spent ten months in Bujumbura, Burundi, learning how to listen, observe, interview, and navigate, as well as gain access to and work with found archives in African city closets.

In 1989-90, I spent 14 months in the Kisangani region of then Zaire, following midwives and pregnant women around and using ethnographic perplexities to generate historical questions. In 2000-2001, I helped 16 graduate students from the Universities of Ghana and Michigan learn how to write up ethnographic encounters in Accra, first as storied observations and later as filmed segments. In 2001 and 2007, I made several trips by canoe beyond Mbandaka in DRC’s Equateur, sensing landscapes and ways of life. Conversations and photographs with nurses, healers, merchants, and journalists were important, as were run-ins with security police.

In all of these cases, I adapted method to the time available, the situation and needs at hand, and tactics of nearness or distance.

What subjects or topics do you most enjoy teaching and why?

For some 20 years, I have been teaching an undergraduate course called “Health and Illness in African Worlds.” The course weaves among anthropology, history, and dilemmas in global health practice. The more this course became about working up close with primary sources, many now digitally available, the more stimulating it became.

While I love teaching new and canonical books in seminars about African and medical historiography, my favorite experience in developing a new graduate seminar at the University of Michigan has been working up the syllabus for “Theory for Historians.” While a few of the texts may be called “theory from the South” (Césaire, Fanon, Spivak, the list goes on), the thrust of the course lies in getting each student to grapple with difficult texts in philosophy and history—Bloch, Kracauer, Koselleck, and the like—while working toward a set of concepts that enables refining urgent empirical interpretations.

What would you tell students who are debating whether or not to study Africa?

I would tell African students, regardless of where they grew up, to do so if they are passionate about some aspect, but to also think and study beyond the “Africa box,” as already contrived and reified. I would tell North American students or those from other parts of the world: Yes! Why not? Like any part of the world, Africa is fascinating, even if its study in North America perhaps may involve considerable racial politics. Mostly, it is only worth doing if one is willing to develop an ethnographic sensibility and go to some places in Africa for sustained periods of experience and study.

Why is the study of health and science in Africa important?

Health is the most capacious rubric going for coming to terms with African worlds in affirmative and inclusive terms. Much wider than disease or medicine, health opens analysis to the everyday, to the practical, the religious, and the therapeutic, to wealth and social reproduction, without eliding death, affliction, pathogens, and scars. The study of the health-related sciences in Africa is also important because human needs on this continent are enormous. Research practice and experimentality are never innocent and thus merit watchful, concentrated scrutiny over time, in intimate, “near” ways.

Give us a teaser for your presentation at BIG STORIES + CLOSE (UP) RESEARCH: Health and Science in the African World.

I have been working for a while on the concept of “techniques of nearness.” The words come from Walter Benjamin. They have helped me see how to move close to the sensory in places and in sources, tracking the acoustic, the visual, and other kinds of perceptibility.

One set of photographs from a Congolese archive suggests an everyday vacillation to visibility and invisibility and also in relation to a vexed matter of injury and harm.

Profile produced by Kyra Fox.

Click here to view more “Africa in Our Lives” profiles.

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