Off-grid solar power is flourishing in sub-Saharan Africa – affordable products are providing electricity to millions previously without access.  But this clean tech is also adding to existing rubbish dumps in the region.

E-waste – e-speak for used electrical or electronic goods – was born on 22nd March 1989 in Basel, Switzerland.  The Basel Convention, which opened on that day, is a United Nations treaty that restricts the trans-boundary movement of hazardous waste through export bans.  Its regulatory, government-level approach has set the tone for e-waste management ever since.  Although successful in some contexts (e.g. Switzerland), this tone is less relevant to those far from neoliberal centres of power, in countries where the face of governance itself is somewhat different and electronics are sold, used, and re-used in completely different ways.  Similarly irrelevant to the African setting is research dominated by economists and environmental scientists who focus on solving the e-waste problem in the ‘West’.  Their saving narrative obscures the non-Western setting and income-generating opportunities that handling e-waste can provide elsewhere in the world.

Despite playing a central role in global e-waste flows, as a recipient of illegal imports and increasingly as a producer of its own, Africa is under-represented in the research.  The unfortunate irony is that it is in the less influential, less regulated – less ‘developed’ – countries of Africa that one finds those closest to e-waste, those whose livelihoods depend on it and who are least equipped to process toxic batteries and circuit boards safely.


E-waste begins its physical life in China where the majority of electronics are produced, before the majority of those goods are sold and used in the Global North.  When broken or replaced by the latest model, what now constitutes e-waste finds its way, in spite of the Basel Convention, to countries of cheap labour such as Ghana or Kenya.  Here the waste is processed and useful components are returned to China to be input into new processes, leaving the rest in African rubbish dumps. However, the growing solar industry in sub-Saharan Africa is bucking this trend: moving directly from manufacture in China to first hand sale in Africa, the flow of solar products bypasses Europe and North America.

This unique geography undermines the effectiveness of the Basel Convention, and similar international agreements.  Their import and export rules are less effective when the waste they are trying to contain is already contained – i.e. when it has been domestically produced.  This direct Sino-African link is bolstered, and the volumes of e-waste increased, by the growing consumption of mobiles, TVs and computers in the region.

Figure 1 - The side of a collection truck at an e-waste processing centre in Nairobi, Kenya [2014].

Figure 1 – The side of a collection truck at an e-waste processing centre in Nairobi, Kenya [2014].


The Basel Convention and its imitators at regional and national levels target governments and manufacturers.  Consumers and those earning their living from e-waste are absent from the agreements themselves and their framing.  Whilst this is not surprising, the global nature of these waste flows necessitates universal involvement in its management.  Efforts to adhere to the legislative agenda are split between economic incentives and changes in product design.  Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) requires manufacturers to take back used products and organise proper disposal.  In Japan disposal fees put the ‘burden’ on the consumer, requiring them to pay upon disposal to fund producer take-back schemes.  Elsewhere, environmental scientists have pushed the idea of Design for Environment (DfE) sometimes known as Design for Disassembly (DfD) – reflecting the primary challenge of e-waste processing: the separation of its component parts.  But again, the disassemblers themselves are not present in design discussions.

The absence of reliable energy infrastructure is fuelling the growth of Africa’s off-grid solar industry.  The state is similarly absent in the management of waste.  This sparse state infrastructure, coupled with the prevalence of informal labour, makes sub-Saharan Africa, like much of the Global South, a unique regulatory environment – one where EPR and disposal fees might need to be rethought.

Fix it

There is insufficient research on e-waste in Africa – where much of it ends up.  Responses are not consulting the recyclers there who deal with it nor are they considerate of distinct political contexts.  Animations such as Annie Leonard’s Story of Electronics, CBS news features or damning reports from Greenpeace are effective ways to raise the profile of the e-waste problem.  However, responding to their dramatic narratives with commercially-driven, legally-framed, and environmentally-motivated measures is not the solution.

The case of solar products highlights the problems within current e-waste management.  The unique geography of Africa’s growing solar industry, the legacy of imported e-waste and the increasing internal generation of waste electronics needs a more effective and relevant response than producer-focused regulation.  E-waste may yet prove a positive opportunity for sub-Saharan Africa but only if the research on it and responses to it allow.

[Originally posted on Declan Murray’s blog]

Follow Declan on Twitter: @declanrmurray

Originally posted on Pete Chonka:

DSC_1282As a British, white and male PhD candidate doing research in Somalia in the field of ‘African studies’ the recent furore surrounding the #CadaanStudies has left me feeling distinctly uncomfortable.

This is no bad thing.

The debate which has been generated around the ‘whiteness’ of scholarship on the region (and, while we’re at it, the continent at large), its colonial baggage and lack of reflexivity is extremely relevant. The way it has coalesced around and been magnified by the power of the ubiquitous hashtag says a lot about the discursive zeitgeist of the twitter-sphere, and is  both remarkable and progressive. These are serious issues and it has been fascinating to see this outpouring of critique towards the structures of academia and the wider global inequalities which they reflect or, it could be argued, reinforce through the knowledge/power dynamics of academic institutions and policy-making.

From this debate has emerged a particular…

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Congratulations to Jaye Renold for recently winning a “Visualising Sustainable Development” competition organised by the University of Edinburgh’s Sustainable Business Initiative. Jaye’s illustration was inspired by a visit to Cairo’s waste collectors, the Zabbaleen, in 2013.

What does a sustainable world look like? During the University of Edinburgh’s Innovative Learning week students were asked to share their perspective on sustainability through artistic expression – whether painting, photography, illustration, or sculpture – in order to show how they understand and interpret sustainability.

The competition was open to all, staff, students as well as the public. Entries were judged by Dr Kenneth Amaeshi (Director of Sustainable Business Initiative), John Brennan (Head of Edinburgh School of Architecture), and Ben Twist (Director of Creative Carbon Scotland).

Jaye is a fourth year Social Anthropology student who has recently completed a dissertation on street recyclers in Chile. She developed her interest in waste and recycling through setting up The Swap and Reuse Hub, a cooperative located near the University of Edinburgh’s central campus.

The Zabbaleen waste collectors of Cairo

The Zabbaleen waste collectors of Cairo

See Jaye Renold’s winning illustration enlarged !

And click here to see a fascinating TEDx talk on the Zabbaleen by University of Edinburgh anthropology lecturer Jamie Furniss.

On Saturday, the 7th of March the University of Oxford held a “Researching Africa Day” at St Antony’s College. It was an opportunity for PhD/DPhil students to present research related to “imagining welfare in contemporary Africa”, and Edinburgh was well-represented by four speakers. It was a really engaging day, with thought-provoking comments from several Oxford professors who acted as discussants, and a barrage of questions from the audience. The all-important networking happened at the pub afterwards. I heard someone declare it “one of the best student conferences ever”.


The presenters from Edinburgh:

Megan Canning (International Development) who presented on Labour, Livelihoods and Gender Inequality: Winners and Losers in the Malawian Sugar Industry:

Oxford’s Researching Africa Day was a great opportunity to present in public for the first time the findings from my 2014 fieldwork forming a pilot study for my PhD.  The questions which surfaced in the panel discussion were useful for me in reflecting on my methods and frameworks at a critical stage before going back to the field.  It was also an important opportunity to reflect on the work of other early researchers with some relevance to my own work, such as Duncan Money’s (Oxford) historical account of corporate sponsored leisure activities on the Zambian Copperbelt, or Hannah Dawson’s (Oxford) study of work and unemployment amongst male youths in South Africa.  I also really appreciated the chance to listen to my fellow University of Edinburgh colleagues present, which helped me to better understand some of the fantastic research being conducted by friends right here in CAS.

Ismaila Ceesay (African Studies) who presented on Chanting to Hustle: a Study of the Income Earning Activities of Urban Youth in Gambian Cybercafes:

The Researching Africa Day event provided me and other emerging scholars the opportunity to share our work with a wider academic audience. The quality of the presentations were brilliant and thought-provoking. The presenters successfully reflected on the changing nature of welfare in Africa and how it is provided. The diversity of the themes covered in the various panels (epidemics, transitional justice, leisure, colonial science, gender etc.) demonstrated the interdisciplinary approach to welfare provision in contemporary Africa. The quality of feedback from Prof. Jonny Steinberg, my panel discussant, and the audience were of the highest quality. In particular, the insights gained from these interventions enhanced my overall approach and understanding to studies of youth in Africa in terms of how they are viewed and their transition to adulthood.

I was greatly fascinated by Dr. Moguerane’s closing remarks which reflected on and engaged with the various presentations in a way that merged the different themes, thereby producing a single disciplinary approach to ‘Imagining Welfare in Contemporary Africa’.

Laura Martin (African Studies) who presented on Institutionalising Local Transitional Justice: Examples from Sierra Leone.

I presented research on the role and impact of Fambul Tok in rural Sierra Leonean communities.  The conference was a good opportunity for presentation practice in a slightly more informal setting.  It was also great to interact with other scholars at a similar stage and see what other types of research are happening in African Studies currently.

Declan Murray (International Development) who presented on There is a Light and it Does Go Out: Following Broken Solar Products in Kenya

Research in Africa Day was the first conference I’ve presented at, and whilst I don’t know when I’ll next have to make the solar products of my PhD relate to old Zambian railway girders or photos of contemporary Cape Town (the foci of my co-panelists), the day definitely forced me to think about my research in new ways.


Well done,
Maurice Hutton

Declan Murray presents

Declan Murray presents


Professor Miles Larmer: discussant for Megan Cannin's panel

Professor Miles Larmer (discussant) and Megan Canning discussing her research

Originally posted on Pete Chonka:


Mogadishu, capital city of Somalia, is a complicated place. For many the very name continues to evoke images of endemic conflict: from downed US helicopters and street battles between warlords, to suicide bombings and targeted assassinations. It’s remarkable that for so many people who have no connection to the place, the film Blackhawk Down (filmed in Morocco) remains a primary visual reference point for the city – its destruction, ruins and populace. Over the last few years I have had the privilege to work in Mogadishu, commuting, as it were, back and forth between Nairobi and Somalia’s capital, seeing the changes and continuities on the ground: both development and destruction, both a‘rebirth’ of the city, and the often apparent cheapness of human life. This is an environment in which I am now conducting my doctoral research (on media and political discourses of nationalism), one which I am attempting to understand…

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In the political economy of global health and illness, the Ebola crisis in West Africa exposes the failures of ‘quick fix’ and ‘magic bullet’ solutions in African Development.    These failures have been most dramatic in the three worst affected countries – Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone – where already weak infrastructures have collapsed.

Why, after a decade of producing preparedness propaganda, was the global health community so unprepared for an epidemic of this magnitude?  To answer this question, we first need to situate Ebola in the recent history of public global health, including policy failures (Structural Adjustment Policies of the ’80s and ’90s, and the current Millennium Development Goals), along with the obsession with bio-preparedness that came out of the Bush administration. Out of this there has grown a whole discourse around global health failure, and when it comes to the uncontrollable spread of Ebola, the World Health Organisation (WHO) is currently the number one scapegoat.  Looking toward the future in light of policy scrambling and setbacks, the focus is now firmly on reform and the strengthening of healthcare systems. But what about the most important actors in any public health policy fight – the survivors? How will they, and the wider communities to which they belong, navigate post-Ebola lives, and how will it impact their economic futures?


Historical context and the new era of ‘global health’

It has been argued that the West African Ebola crisis is the result of two decades of wrong-headed political choices and actions – especially the introduction of the Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs) and global policy obsession with the idea of bio-preparedness – which are considered the main culprits in Africa’s enduring healthcare problems[i].

The story begins with the Berg report, published by the World Bank in 1981. This study highlighted the crippling effect the economic distress of the 1970s global debt crisis had on poor countries, which was evidence enough to blame excessive government spending on social programmes, including healthcare. The World Bank responded by aggressively advocating deep cuts in public spending on healthcare services and healthcare infrastructure in the Global South. To the World Bank, it didn’t really matter that hospitals, clinics and primary healthcare facilities were already understaffed and underfunded, nor did it matter that there was hardly any functioning equipment available in hospitals. Their only concern was to increase production in the most profitable export sectors, such as mining and agriculture, in order to strengthen the global economy (and therefore the capitalist paradigm).

The failure of the SAPs led to the establishment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000, which initiated a strong mobilisation of Private-Public Partnerships (PPPs). The focus of the new public health policies was on vertical disease programmes in order to fight single diseases. These programmes emphasised the ‘big three’: Aids/HIV, Malaria and TB, with lesser attention paid to ‘other’ diseases including Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs). The focus on these vertical, short-term and life-saving interventions drew even more resources away from public healthcare systems as private NGOs and humanitarian organisations established parallel health care systems, which required local healthcare workers in order to operate. This led to a fragmentation of healthcare provision which in turn resulted in massive uncertainties for patients. Ulli Beisel calls this development “the spatial logic of global health programmes”[ii].

The failure of SAPs and MDGs is just one part of a bigger package of failed global public health ‘initiatives’. The bio-preparedness obsession during the Bush administration was another part of that package[iii]. Pandemic preparedness became the watchwords, with research funds devoted to ‘bioterrorism’ and ‘emerging diseases’. The implementation of preparedness programmes took up masses of funding and led to heavy political pressure on African governments, requiring by way of return an element of public pageantry. Almost invariably, each new programme was kicked off with simulation exercises: in large conference room’s ministers and WHO expert’s simulated military, police and public health interventions so far removed from the reality on the ground – where equipment, human resources and infrastructure were seriously lacking – that the whole process became absurd. Just as the SAPs drew away resources from extant public healthcare systems, these bio-preparedness exercises drained away the energies of African health authorities, which would have been far better utilised on urgent health emergencies present in their respective countries. In this new backward global health paradigm, real diseases took a back seat to the speculation on policy and bureaucracy.

However, not all blame can be laid at the feet of these flawed health policy programmes, particularly in the case of the Ebola crisis – African governments and bureaucratic leadership are known for rampant corruption with regard to foreign aid and interventions. On the other hand, it’s impossible to overlook the glaring connections between international development, African politics, and the legacy of colonialism. The exclusion of Africans in colonial administration, leading to a dearth of qualified bureaucrats in newly independent nations, created the highly competitive, nepotistic toxicity in modern African governance. Resulting systems of decentralised despotism within commodity-based economies have had a hugely negative impact on medical infrastructure in ‘priority’ African countries, which has made the heavy-handed efforts of the SAPs especially inappropriate in local contexts[iv].


Current discourse on the global public health failure

The current global public health crisis has three aspects: Humanitarianism, Biosecurity and Pharmaceutical capitalism[v]. Pharmaceutical capitalism sometimes enables the former two regimes to operate, as pharmaceutical companies might or might not invest in new drugs and trials. This is very much dependent upon whether a disease is deemed to be ‘profitable’ or not. Before this current crisis, Ebola was not profitable as it only sporadically came out of its ‘dormant’ state, and when flare-ups did occur, they were limited to the Global South, an area promising no returns for the capitalist-driven pharmaceutical companies. This very much resembles the ‘dormant’ state of the global public health community, of which the WHO is the symbolic figurehead. Global public health, according to Theresa MacPhail[vi], is much like a virus: it helps to eradicate and control and it cannot survive outside of a healthy ‘host’, that is the existence of effective local and national public health agencies.

MH ebola diagramme

Figure 1: taken from http://www.limn.it.

Like a virus, global health responses reconfigure themselves in response to each unique challenge. Such responses are always dependent upon the host environment: if the local public health systems are weak, the global response will be slow or ineffective. The WHO oversees global response efforts as it coordinates the response ‘networks’, which consist of different local, national and regional public health agencies. And this, according to MacPhail, was one of the major issues in reacting to the current Ebola crisis. Each of these different response networks have their own institutional culture: different protocols, routines and priorities. Despite being united under the umbrella of global public health, the operations on the ground remain distinct, removed from each other, and more often than not uncoordinated, leading to the patchy healthcare landscape which is so common in the Global South. Blaming the WHO for the slow response henceforth is counterproductive.

The WHO did not have the capacity nor the funding to deal with such a wide and fast spreading epidemic. It was not so much an organisational failure as it was a failure of administrative imagination. Ebola has undergone a conceptual mutation since its first discovery in 1976: from a fearsome emerging disease, requiring extensive research into pathogens and transmission, to a neglected disease which is manageable by localised humanitarian care, combined with straightforward public health techniques such as surveillance and contact tracing. A shift from one emergency to another. This was reflected in the initial response alert level (Grade 2 out of 3) given to Ebola by the WHO, as the confidence level in being able to control this disease was high. This confidence only vanished when the disease spread to Nigeria’s capital, Lagos, and when it threatened to spread to the US and other Western countries. It was also at this point that the WHO declared the Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), some six months after the disease started to spread through West Africa. Ebola shifted again to a fearsome emerging disease which threatens the global biosecurity and economy.

Ebola also underwent a conceptual shift – from a biological to a techno-political meaning of the disease where the global public health understanding of the disease had to take other elements into consideration: the extent in which its virulence and transmissibility depended on the condition of the local public health infrastructure in which it appeared[vii]. With this in mind the focus of the global public health community shifted (back) to a healthcare strengthening paradigm.


Future Outlook: Healthcare strengthening approach

Healthcare System Strengthening (HSS) has been advocated for years by social scientists and health experts. Even prior to the Ebola crisis the global public health community started to pay attention towards HSS and ever more funding was directed towards this goal. However, most HSS initiatives still carry the legacy of the vertical interventions introduced with the MDGs (as explained above) and therefore are limited in their scope and reach. Another concern was raised by Alice Street[viii], who argued that the focus on systems might lead to abstractions, as they are imagined from afar where public health experts depict such systems in diagrams and numbers. It remains to be seen whether such an abstraction will take place in the upcoming European Donor conference at the beginning of March 2015 in Brussels, or whether the attending public health experts from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone can keep the delegation’s feet on the ground and stick to the reality of the public healthcare situation in their countries. According to Margret Harris[ix], a spokesperson of the WHO, the healthcare systems in the three most effected countries have to be built almost anew, and importance should be laid upon consulting, engaging and empowering local communities. She points towards the necessary healthcare reforms within these countries and beyond: stronger surveillance systems, healthcare which will work even when international partners leave, and longer-term structural changes (which changes were not explicitly stated). Furthermore, to harness and build upon the newly established Ebola infrastructure is considered to be a priority in order to be able to re-launch newly established Ebola Community Units (ECUs) into community-based health facilities.

Community-based response (CBR) programmes, which the humanitarian organisation Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF) recently initiated, might be a step into the right direction. CBR programmes are thought to help to slow down transmission by expanding the biomedical frontier from the centres of expertise to the uncertain realm of communities[x]. This has been done on two fronts: through the support of home based care and through ECUs. The former involves the distribution of kits (e.g. PPEs and disinfectants) to every households. It is hoped that over time this will result in expert care, as family members know how to prevent to become infected when caring for an Ebola patient. Survivors are already playing an important role as they are trained to distribute materials and to provide counselling support to the care givers. The latter intervention, ECUs, are providing basic medical care and are understood to be a triage point where suspected Ebola patients are tested, and if confirmed, being transferred to Ebola Treatment Units (ETUs). People are also tested for Malaria and other diseases. If tested negative for Ebola, but positive for Malaria, for example, they ideally are given medications. However, it has been reported that many vital medicines are scarce and that people with clear Ebola symptoms are sent away, which in turn causes indirect effects of Ebola (e.g. fatal malaria, pneumonia or TB cases)[xi]. ECUs are ideally supported by minimal trained volunteers, preferably survivors, and can only effectively be operated when run in a socially acceptable way. High quality of care – not so much in biomedical terms, but in socio-cultural terms – make ECUs social welcoming places. With this system it is hoped that social trust can be generated and people with Ebola symptoms are less afraid to come to the ECU.


Post-Ebola survival effects

Physical after-effects, also known as Post-Ebola Syndrome (PES), are amongst the most pressing problems Ebola survivors face[xii]. Symptoms include: Joint and Muscle Pain, Uveitis (which if untreated can lead to blindness), Deafness, Autoimmune Disorders, Extreme Fatigue Syndrome and Reproductive Health Disorders. To date little is known on what causes PES. Researchers suggest however that PES might be caused by the virus itself, by Ebola drugs, the heavy use of disinfectant and chlorine, or by stress. It is not clear how long symptoms will last or whether they will persist long-term. Furthermore, poor medical records might make it difficult to separate any new symptoms from existing conditions. Hardly any scientific literature has been published on the medical/psychological (long-term) effects of PES, nor on the Post-Ebola long-term social effects.

The sparse literature documenting the long-term social effects indicates that Ebola survivors experience stigmatisation and exclusion from their communities and families due to fear of Ebola transmission. Nothing to date, however, has been reported on the disabling symptoms of PES, such as blindness and deafness, and how they might impact upon the economic status of survivors, their families and the wider communities. In addition, no studies have investigated how reproductive health disorders related to PES (Impotence/Amenorrhea) might impact upon existing relationships, marriage potentials, and how this might lead to obsolesce in the survivor population. Ebola survivor clinics are gradually being established, but it remains to be seen how and by whom these clinics will be run once the epidemic has ceased and whether the healthcare strengthening reforms and the (hopefully) resulting newly established healthcare infrastructure will cater for the disabled Ebola survivors.


The Ebola crisis has certainly shone a spotlight on the shortcomings of past global public health interventions. With the newly acquired attention towards healthcare strengthening policies and reforms one can only hope that these new policies will not lead to yet another failed vertical intervention, leaving African healthcare infrastructure even more fragmented and weak. Instead the global public health community should take this crisis as an opportunity to help bring about real change, with the empowerment of existing local healthcare infrastructure as the main priority. This would not only equip African countries with better surveillance and preparedness capacities for future epidemics. The strengthening of the local healthcare infrastructure would also provide a platform from which the double burden of communicable and non-communicable diseases can be successfully tackled, and it might also guarantee universal healthcare coverage for all.


Michaela Hubmann – PhD student in African Studies.



[i] See for example: Jones, J. (2011). Ebola, Emerging: The Limitations of Culturalist Discourses in Epidemiology. The Journal of Global Health. 1 (1): 2-5.


Nkwanga, W. (2015). The Ebola crisis in West Africa and the enduring legacy of the Structural Adjustment Policies. Africa at LSE. Available at: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/africaatlse/2015/01/26/the-ebola-crisis-in-west-africa-and-the-enduring-legacy-of-the-structural-adjustment-policies/. Accessed on 09/02/2015.

[ii] Beisel, U. (2014). On gloves, rubber and the spatio-temporal logics of global health.Somatosphere. Available at: http://somatosphere.net/2014/10/rubber-gloves-global-health.html. Accessed on 16/01/2015.


[iii] Lachenal, G. (2014). Ebola 2014. Chronicle of a well-prepared disaster. Somatosphere. Available at: http://somatosphere.net/2014/10/chronicle-of-a-well-prepared-disaster.html. Accessed on 16/01/2015.


[iv] Jones, J. (2011). Ebola, Emerging: The Limitations of Culturalist Discourses in Epidemiology. The Journal of Global Health. 1 (1): 2-5.


[v] Lakoff, A. (2015). Two States of Emergency: Ebola 2014. Limn. Available at: http://limn.it/two-states-of-emergency-ebola-2014/. Accessed on 10/02/2015.


Nading, A. (2015). Ebola, Chimeras, and Unexpected Speculation. Limn. Available at: http://limn.it/ebola-chimeras-and-unexpected-speculation/. Accessed on 10/02/2015.


[vi] MacPhail, T. (2015). Global Health Doesn’t Exist. Limn. Available at: http://limn.it/global-health-doesnt-exist/. Accessed on 10/02/2015.


[vii] Lakoff, A. (2015). Two States of Emergency: Ebola 2014. Limn. Available at: http://limn.it/two-states-of-emergency-ebola-2014/. Accessed on 10/02/2015.


[viii] Street, A. (2014). Rethinking Infrastructures for Global Health: A View from West Africa and Papua New Guinea. Somatosphere. Available at: http://somatosphere.net/2014/12/rethinking-infrastructures.html. Accessed on 16/01/2015.


[ix] World Health Organization (WHO). (2014). Sierra Leone: Helping the Ebola survivors turn the page. Features 2014. Available at: http://www.who.int/features/2014/en/. Accessed on 10/02/2015


[x] Kelly, A. H. (2015). Ebola, Running Ahead. Limn. Available at: http://limn.it/ebola-running-ahead/. Accessed on 10/02/2015.


[xi] Leach, M., Martineau, F., and Oosterhoff, P. (2014). Increasing Early Presentation to ECU through Improving Care. Anthropology Ebola Response Platform Policy Brief. Available at: http://www.ebola-anthropology.net/key_messages/increasing-early-presentation-to-ecu-through-improving-care/. Accessed on 10/02/2015.


[xii] Lee-Kwan, S., DeLuca, N., Adams, M., Dalling, M. Drevlow, E., Gladys Gassama, G., Davies, T. (2014). Support Services for Survivors of Ebola Virus Disease — Sierra Leone, 2014. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 63 (50): 1205 – 1206.


Who cares about Mr Mubanga?

Embracing challenges and being reflective led to a surprising and rewarding focus for my MSc Africa and International Development dissertation – the needs of men in the context of poverty and HIV/TB in Zambia – and perhaps helps explain why so many men are still dying from AIDS.

Following a long career in mental health, as an Art Psychotherapist in Scotland, enrolling on the MSc Africa and International Development programme 2012/2014 was already a challenge. The opportunity to do a work-based placement at ZAMBART[1] in Zambia was another step into uncertainty, but gave me scope to use my knowledge and skills as a psychotherapist in the secondary analysis of some fascinating HIV/TB data. The dynamics which ultimately resulted in my focus on men’s mental health and physical survival were inspiring and rewarding, and have motivated my ongoing research interests in this field.

My first weeks in Lusaka were spent familiarising myself with the data and beginning the struggle to find a research question out of such rich material. My supervisor at ZAMBART, Ginny Bond, recommended I meet the primary researchers and visit the field site. I was rather filled with awe at the prospect of meeting the Zambian researcher Mutale Chileshe and her assistant Florence Moyo, because their ethnographic research proved exceptionally harrowing.

The primary study[2]

Mutale and Florence lived in the rural community of Pemba, Southern Province, and followed 8 families where there was a new diagnosis of TB, for a period of 8 months – the period of TB treatment. Their focus was on food insecurity and poverty, and implications of this on health outcomes re: TB/HIV. They got to know the families well, visiting them at periods throughout the study to undertake semi-structured questionnaires and take notes. The lack of food and suffering caused by illness in these families was very harsh and painful to witness. They recorded seeing patients in a terrible state unable to breath and their hair falling out. Families were reduced to begging for food. Four TB patients died during the study.

Beatrice’s story stood out as a particularly sad series of events resulting in her death, aged 30 years. The researchers and I ‘compared notes’ and empathised with her dreadful situation. Mubanga, her husband, by contrast was seen by us as a ‘bad man’ – an agent in her death.


Beatrice met her husband Mubanga at the bar where she lived and worked. He moved into the bar with her, abandoning his first wife and 3 children. Beatrice got sick and was diagnosed with TB. Mubanga struggled to care for her, so took her home to his first wife, Enesia, so that she could care for Beatrice (now his second wife). The family were significantly short of food: Enesia voiced the dilemma of not knowing whether to feed the children or ‘the patient’. Beatrice was subsequently diagnosed with HIV but Mubanga refused to let her take medication in ‘his house’. The delay to her accessing treatment is likely to have been a major factor in her death.

Seeing Mubanga

The means whereby I came to see Mubanga’s needs are threefold: firstly, the incongruence of my socialised response, i.e. in defence of women and a judgmental attitude towards ‘bad men’, versus my strictly non-judgmental attitude as a psychotherapist; secondly, my reflections in research domains were validated by qualitative approaches that value reflexivity methodologically, and lastly my personality which has an eye out for those who suffer.


A startling, sad and sorry picture of despair and hopelessness emerges if Mubanga’s needs are considered in relation to the likely psychological and social factors at play in the context of the HIV epidemic and poverty. I draw on concepts of masculinity, psychotherapeutic theory on shame and theories of men’s mental health in my analysis.

Understanding Mubanga in relation to psychological and social dynamics

Sequence of events in Mubanga’s life Psychological significance and links to masculinity
Mubanga’s mother died In Zambia, the relationship between mothers and sons tends to be the closest of all family relationships – so represents a significant loss, increasing his vulnerability.
Inability to provide for his family due to problems in subsistence farming and limited opportunities for earning money Traditional masculine role means that he is responsible for ‘provision’; failure to ‘provide’ impacts on his sense of identity, causing shame.
Running away from his family Avoidance is a common response in men’s depression. ‘Masculinities’ where men are expected to be strong and un-expressive can mean accessing support is not an option.
Inability to care for Beatrice and the return to Enesia This is likely due to the fact that it is seen as a woman’s role to provide personal care – and Enesia is the only woman he can call on to do this.
Refusal to let Beatrice take ARVS[3] in his house This threatens his male ‘head of household’ position – it will look like he has lost control of his wives. The specific stigma of HIV exacerbates this.
Presents to the researchers as ‘his usual cool and smiling self’ Mubanga, like men (the world over) suffering from shame and/ or depression often develop a mask – a barrier in order to maintain an image of success – but which hides the despair and troubles within.
Is diagnosed as HIV+ but continues to have unprotected sex with Enesia Avoidance, shame and holding onto a traditional male identity serve to prevent Mubanga behaving in less risky ways.
Chooses not to access ARV treatment for his HIV and dies of AIDS, aged 34 years The extent of his shame and despair at being unable to achieve his masculine provider and identity, means that death is the only way out – a common response[4].

Thus a question emerges from my research which warrants further enquiry:

What part might poor mental health in men – linked to gender norms – play in fuelling the ongoing infection and death rates from HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa?

Why has this relationship not yet been explored?

The lack of consideration of men’s mental health in the field of HIV/TB is startling. Such blind spots can occur due to ‘structural violence’ [5]. Development’s focus on ‘gender’ inadvertently diverts attention from the needs of men, with men becoming routinely labelled as ‘the problem’. In addition the everyday assumption that men are strong and somehow invulnerable prevents their human needs being noticed and addressed. This occurs in the world of research too, where a focus on men’s outward expressions of anger predominates over exploring inner feelings of despair.

So what now?

Touched by the deaths and suffering in these families and invigorated by the research process in my dissertation study, I will continue to research the possible relationships between men’s mental health and HIV/AIDS. If these relationships hold water then there are major implications for how development initiatives address health risks, and potential benefits for men, women and children.

This blog is dedicated to Mubanga, Enesia and Beatrice who allowed their stories to be heard – not for the benefit of themselves but for others; and to Mutale and Florence, who were brave and strong enough to hear them.

Lesley Hill, MSc Africa and International Development (2014)



[1] ZAMBART – a non-for profit research organisation based within the University of Zambia that is also a research collaborating centre for the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

[2] Chileshe, M., Bond,V, 2010. Barriers and Outcomes: TB patients co-infected with HIV accessing antiretroviral therapy in rural Zambia.. AIDS Care, 22(Supplement 1), pp. 51-59.

[3] ARVS – Antiretroviral drugs for HIV

[4] Rakgoasi, S.O.2013. ‘Women get infected but men die…! Narratives on Men, masculinities and HIV/AIDS in Botswana’ International Journal of men’s health, 12 (summer), pp. 166-182

[5] Farmer, P., 2006. Structural Violence and Clinical Medicine. PLoS Med , 3(10), p. e449. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0030449


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