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From an Agency of Cultural Destruction to an Agency of Public Health

Transformations in Catholic Missionary Medicine in Post-Colonial Eastern Zambia, 1964–1982

In: Social Sciences and Missions
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Most medical histories maintain that missionary doctors in imperial Africa were agents of Western cultural imperialism. This scholarship, informed by the writings of Michel Foucault, projects mission-based healers as agents of imperial power who played a major role in emasculating African therapeutic systems and in reinforcing colonial hegemony. This scholarship partly derives its support from the fact that across Africa, mission doctors and nurses cast themselves as cultural conquistadors whose ultimate goal was no less to undermine local medical culture than to supplant it with biomedical comprehensions of disease, healing and medicine. Convincing as this scholarship may be, it over-simplistically locks Christian medical missions in a distant/static past, erroneously portraying them as monolithic entities, and largely obscuring how missionary discourses and praxis surrounding disease and medicine metamorphosed in the aftermath of colonialism. This paper may be read as a corrective to such scholarship. The paper insists that, in conformity with the expectations and demands of the post-colonial regime in Zambia, Catholic medics reconfigured their medical discourse and practice. Consequently, their medicine lost its imperial/hegemonic pretensions and became an agency through which the newly-independent Zambian state implemented its public health reforms.

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