Medicine and Anthropology in Twentieth Century Africa: Akan Medicine and Encounters with (Medical) Anthropology

by Kwasi Konadu


Since the 1920s, there has been a foreground of fluctuating perspectives on indigenous African medicine and therapeutics in the medical anthropology of Africa. These circular perspectives in medical anthropology have stubbornly focused on the ubiquity of “witchcraft,” the natural or supernatural basis of African therapeutics, integration between biomedicine and indigenous systems of healing, but have failed to excavate African perspectives on or the relevance of these issues in the background of African societies. This essay argues the failure to locate African perspectives on therapeutic matters that may or may not be important concerns in African societies is the quest for “ethnographic cases” that lend themselves to issues in the field of medical anthropology rather than African knowledge and perspectives of the field (i.e., Africa). The Bono, an Akan society of central Ghana, provides but one of many significant case studies in the encounter between African therapeutics and medical anthropology in the twentieth century, and an African perspective on the substance of those foregoing issues in the (medical) anthropology of Africa.

The healer must first have a healer’s nature… [he or she] who would be a healer must set great value on seeing truly, hearing truly, understanding truly, and acting truly… You see why healing can’t be a popular vocation? The healer would rather see and hear and understand than have power over men. Most people would rather have power over men than see and hear.

—Ayi Kwei Armah, The Healers, pp. 80-81

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Kwasi Konadu is an Assistant Professor of History at The City University of New York. He is the author of Indigenous Medicine and Knowledge in African Society (2007) and A View from the East: Black Cultural Nationalism and Education in New York City (2008).