Ironies of Laboratory Work during Ghana's Second Age of Optimism: Supplemental Material

This post builds on the research article “Ironies of Laboratory Work during Ghana's Second Age of Optimism,” which was published in the May 2014 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published numerous articles on expert knowledge, science and technology studies, subjectivity and citizenship, and postcolonialism including: Antina Von Schnitzler’s “Traveling Technologies: Infrastructure, Ethical Regimes, and the Materiality of Politics in South Africa” (2013); Daniela Gondolfo’s “Formless: A Day at Lima’s Office of Formalization” (2013); Daena Funahashi’s “‘Wrapped in Plastic’: Transformation and Alienation in the New Finnish Economy” (2013); Susan Cook and Rebecca Hardin’s “Performing Royalty in Contemporary Africa” (2013); Ahmed Khana’s “Flexible Citizenship in Dubai: Neoliberal Subjectivity in the Emerging ‘City-Corporation’” (2011); and Filip De Boeck’s “Inhabiting Ocular Ground: Kinshasa's Future in the Light of Congo's Spectral Urban Politics” (2011). Also see the curated collections on “Infrastructure” and “Ethnographies of Science” and CA’s Theorizing the Contemporary blog forum, “Theory from the South” for a collection of essays about Jean and John Camaroff’s book, Theory from the South, or how Euro-America is Evolving (Paradigm 2012).

About the Author

Damien Droney is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University. His research is primarily concerned with the vocation of science in contemporary Africa. His dissertation, Weedy Science: The Culture and Politics of Herbal Medicine Research in Ghana, describes herbal medicine training, research, and practice from the perspective of the students of a university program in herbal medicine.

Interview with Damien Droney

Stefanie Graeter: I am always curious about the path that led people to their research. I imagine that in your case irony wasn't your initial object of attention. Could you let us know what you went into the field looking for and how this focus on irony regarding African science developed?

Damien Droney: You’re right that I didn’t go into fieldwork looking for irony, or expecting to focus on what I now think of as “throwaway comments.” It was clear from the beginning of preliminary fieldwork at the Centre for Scientific Research into Plant Medicine that employees talked about their labs through a negative relationship with “modernity.” This is how they introduced me to the labs before my period of sustained fieldwork even began, so I knew early on that this was socially meaningful and that I had to try to make sense of it.

The focus on irony regarding African science emerged in a less straightforward way. I went in interested in the vocation of science in Africa, looking at the contingencies of historical place that shape the practice of science in potentially surprising ways. Because of that, I was attuned to anything that was said about “Africa” or “science.” That’s how I came to write down these jokes about African science. Without this initial intent to record how people talked about Africa, I might never have written down these jokes. They came up as we whiled away the workday across months of fieldwork. These were the kind of comments that you usually ignore because they’re so ubiquitous and casual as to seem insignificant.

I really only became aware of the extent to which African science was referred to in an ironic sense when I was reviewing my fieldnotes many months later. I ran a report for everything that I had coded “Africa” and came up with pages of uncomfortable jokes. This was awkward and even unsettling. It was only when I realized that these jokes were indicative of laboratory workers’ hopes and aspirations as well as their frustrations that I felt comfortable writing about them.

SG: For me, it would be interesting to know a bit more about the actual products being developed at the Centre. What types of products are being developed from what sorts of plants? Where do they go and how do they circulate? In other words, what are the forces that propel the lab on despite its material deteriorations?

DD: The Centre has about two-dozen products that were developed in the 1970s by Dr. Oku Ampofo. The majority of these are liquid decoctions, and many have proven efficacy in animal studies as anti-malarials, analgesics, antipyretics, and so on. Many of these combine two or three plants, most of which are harvested from the wild on contract (though the Centre does have some farmland as well). The Centre also produces herbal extracts for local industry, most notably for Alomo Bitters, which is a popular alcoholic drink made in Ghana.

The work in the research laboratories where I spent the most time was twofold. First, they tested a large volume of domestically produced herbal medicines that have been submitted to the Ghana Food and Drugs Authority for certification. This is highly routinized work that involves testing the microbial load of these products, freeze-drying them (if they are in the form of a decoction), administering them to animals, and recording basic phytochemical data. In addition, these laboratories engage in research on the Centre’s existing products as well as working to develop new products. This can involve everything from safety and efficacy tests in animals to identifying novel molecules. A small but significant part of this research is conducted as part of transnational bioprospecting collaborations.

SG: You mention the turmoil of Ghana's postcolonial statehood, as well as the (related) lack of financial resources, as what generates the "lack" of both state infrastructure and the technological resources of the lab. While the national economy lurks in the background of this piece, could you fill us in a little on how this economic moment in Ghana influences this scenario? Does the private sector offer the young scientists you worked with in Ghana the possibility to do "modern" science? It's interesting that despite the valorization of science as a symbol of modernity, public funding to this sector has been cut off. It also seemed from your article that private sources of funding have been cut as well. Why hasn't more money from the "middle-income" Ghanaian economy entered into the sphere of scientific research?

DD: There are private sector jobs available for people with degrees in the sciences. Depending on their training, someone could find a research position with the mining, oil and gas, or agricultural industries. Some people at the Centre expressed a desire to work in some of these industries, but I did not necessarily hear anyone say that they represented the ability to do “modern” science (as some suggested was the case with the nearby Noguchi Memorial Medical Research Institute).

There is a booming herbal-medicine industry in Ghana, and in fact, money from this industry has entered the Centre. A government subvention, private production contracts, tests of privately manufactured medicines for certification, and the Centre’s popular clinic keep the scientific work humming, just not to the level that pleases everyone. I’ve focused on popular dissatisfaction at the Centre, but it’s important to note that work goes on despite the challenges described in the article.

SG: Something that interested me about your article is the focus on the decaying or completely lacking infrastructure as what made the lab, and African science, "not modern." Intriguingly, at the end of the article you write that this material lack didn't translate into the scientific subjectivities of your informants, who saw themselves independent from this techno-infrastructural lack. Can you say what your research told you about what makes certain practices "science," and it seems quite differently, what makes a person a "scientist"?

DD: In the laboratories of the Centre, what defined something as properly scientific was the adherence to internationally accepted standards and protocols for experiments, as I would expect would be the case at any research laboratory. I noticed that when there were differing standards available (for example, for the acceptable microbial load of a decoction) researchers applied the more stringent criteria. They were worried about seeming to fall into a second-rate set of standards for science. This is why people were so annoyed when Kofi offered that the production department did not have a dedicated quality assurance lab because “this is Ghana.” That is precisely the kind of thinking that most of the employees of the Centre were trying to avoid.

Just as most employees of the Centre identified more with their disciplines and professions than with herbal medicine per se, I also found that they were more likely to identify as pharmacologists, microbiologists, or laboratory technicians than as “scientists.” That is to say, though of course they were scientists, they were more concerned with identifying themselves as world-class professionals practicing science than with asserting that they were scientists. I find this interesting. Part of it could come from a sort of Christian humility — scientist is such a big word, it can almost feel pompous to insist on it — or it could be a result of the shift in identity that the article describes: Since the symbolic role of the black scientist no longer feels essential to contemporary nationalist projects, there is not an urgent need to claim that mantle.

SG: Related to the above question, ironic humor seems to operate as a tool for emotionally coping with a dearth of resources, but more importantly, for distancing the scientist's identity away from the material insufficiencies around them and of the nation at large. It seems to provide a nuanced contribution to discussions on the atomization of the subject within neoliberalism or late liberalism: In this case, an autonomous subject not produced by structural adjustments and/or the marketization of economies, but in the aftermath of modernity's broken promises. In your opinion, what role do markets, economies, or new visions or promises of modernity contribute to this move away from a more collective selfhood? Why did you choose to focus on modernity as an analytic for making sense of this?

DD: Broad political economic shifts in Ghana certainly contribute to this story. Ghanaian state institutions were largely gutted by structural adjustment in the 1980s. Many professionals left Ghana for employment elsewhere, and it seems that the continuing existence of the Centre as a semi-public institution was threatened in the 1980s and 90s (see Abena Dove Osseo-Asare’s book Bitter Roots for a more detailed history). The Centre was able to weather this period by aggressively pursuing commercialization and the internal generation of funds. The Centre recently opened another chapter in this history as each department now manages its own financial account. Now formally detached from the production department, the research laboratories are expected to generate funds from their purely scientific activity. Workers at the Centre have had to become more enterprising for their departments to succeed. However you choose to understand neoliberalism, there’s something distinctly neoliberal about this state of affairs, and that’s an important thing to keep in mind in thinking about how the Centre’s employees imagine themselves and their careers.

I chose modernity as the primary analytic for interpreting these shifts in identity firstly because that was the analytic that they were using. They were very interested in interpreting the state of the laboratories in terms of an unrealized modernity more than they were in decrying competitive liberalism. I also focused on the end of a certain type of modernist project as the analytic lens because I think that it was better capable of portraying the mix of lamentation and pride regarding the project of African science that I encountered at the Centre than a focus on the disciplining and incitement of atomistic selves could accomplish. What I wanted to get across was the continuing resonance of the independence-era modernist project, even if the new identity projects that I encountered fit well into scientific institutions undergoing neoliberal reforms.

Questions for Classroom Discussions

1. What relation does the author argue exists, and has existed, between “modernity” and “science” through Ghana’s initial post-colonial period and up until the present? Why does “science” seem to become so entangled with the “modern” project?

2. What does the author mean by irony? What was ironic about the comments spoken by the employees at the Centre and what larger implications do they suggest about their identities in relation to Ghana’s modern project?

3. How does the word “Africa” refer to both a place as well as a host of other associations that has changed through time? For instance, as an adjective in “African Science” or “African Engineering,” what sort of symbolic work does the word Africa do?

4. From this article, what can we say are the components that make a practice “science”? Can science be improvised? What are the historical and economic conditions that we glean from this text that limit where science, or what type of science, can be practiced or not?

Related Readings

Comaroff, Jean, and John L. Comaroff. 2012. Theory from the South: Or, How Euro-America is Evolving Toward Africa. Boulder, Colo.: Paradigm Publishers.

Livingston, Julie. 2012. Improvising Medicine: An African Oncology Ward in an Emerging Cancer Epidemic. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Mbembe, Achille. 2001. On the Postcolony. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Osseo-Asare, Abena Dove. 2014. Bitter Roots: The Search for Healing Plants in Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wendland, Claire L. 2010. Heart for the Work: Journeys through an African Medical School. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Links to Supplemental Resources

The Economist. 2000. “The Hopeless Continent.” Economist, May 11. An issue of The Economist that offers one of the most obvious examples of journalistic writing about "Africa" as a place of wars and famines.

The Economist. 2011. “Africa Rising.” Economist, December 3. Eleven years later, this article from The Economist illustrates the shift in public discourse about Africa, and though their optimism is fairly tempered, it still shows some of the markings of the "Afro-optimist" discourse discussed in Droney’s article.

Wainaina, Binyavanga. 2005. “How to Write about Africa.” Granta 92, no 1. A cutting and ironic critique of the style of writing used in the 2000 article from The Economist.

Lemma, Solome. 2013. “Against the Gospel of ‘Africa Rising.’” Africa is a Country (blog), November 6th.

Mbembe, Achille. “Africa and the Future: An Interview with Achille Mbembe.” By Thomas M. Blaser. Africa is a Country (blog), November 20, 2013. The excellent blog, Africa is a Country (no stranger to irony), has published several critiques of the “Africa rising” narrative, including this one by Solome Lemma and their November 2013 interview with Achille Mbembe.

Akwagyiram, Alexis. 2013. “Africa Rising- But Who Benefits?” BBC, June 18. This BBC article summarizes the Africa rising narrative and offers a critique alongside a number of responses.

Graham, Sean, dir. 1952. Boy Kumasenu. Gold Coast Film Unit. 35mm film. 63 minutes.Video available at Boy Kumasenu, a feature-length colonial film with Dr. Oku Ampofo in a prominent role as Dr. Tamakloe. The website includes some important contextual information on the film’s production. Ampofo first appears at 36:00.