Accepted Paper:

Xhosa Nurses and Xhosa Patients: Negotiating Biomedicine and Xhosa Healing Beliefs in South Africa's Ciskei, 1960s-1980s  


Leslie Hadfield (Brigham Young University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper offers an investigation into the role of female African nurses in rural communities. Based on oral histories, it argues that nurses succeeded in spreading western biomedicine when they worked with rather than against Xhosa healing beliefs.

Paper long abstract:

Scholars of health and healing in African history have shifted from exploring the opposition between western biomedicine and African medicine to the exchanges between the two (Digby 2006, Flint 2008, Baranov 2008). The history of African nurses is particularly important to understanding this exchange as they often occupied the middle-ground between different healing traditions. Yet, there is still a need for an investigation into the work of female African nurses in rural communities where nurses had close relationships with the people they served and encountered 'traditional' healers and beliefs more than those in urban centers. This paper offers such an investigation, focused on the 1960s-1908s in the rural Eastern Cape region of South Africa formerly known as the Ciskei, a region dominated by the Xhosa people. Based largely on oral history interviews with over sixty retired Xhosa nurses, the paper shows how these nurses contested, shared, and negotiated Xhosa beliefs. Being Xhosa themselves, these nurses had a good understanding of the beliefs of their patients and thus could translate biomedical terms linguistically as well as conceptually. The paper argues that nurses succeeded in spreading health education and delivering biomedical health care when they worked with rather than against Xhosa healing beliefs. Most often, nurses motivated their patients to take both Xhosa and clinic medicines while others stressed the importance of informal and formal health education. Ultimately, these nurses played a central role in providing critical health services to their communities and influencing notions of health and healing.

Panel P145
African Women Interpreting and Redefining Public Health in late 20th and early 21st century Africa