Drugs in Africa: A History of Pharmaceuticals in Senegal

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The professionalization of pharmacy in Senegal dates to the 1920s and, until independence, it was almost entirely dominated by whites.

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In a panel on "Drugs in Africa" at the African Studies Association annual meeting in Washington, D.C., in November, Donna Patterson, a historian in the department of africana studies at Wellesley College, presented a paper on "Drug Trafficking in Africa: Historical Cases from West Africa," which in contrast to other papers on the panel looked at the commerce in legal pharmaceuticals. The discussion that followed made clear the value of exploring the histories of "legal" and "illegal" drugs in conjunction one with the other -- something that has rarely been done for Africa, where the focus has been much more on understanding the linkages between "traditional" and Western medicine. At the same time, the discussion led us to consider how those very linkages might inform our understanding of the trade and consumption of various kinds of drugs -- however categorized -- in African societies.

Patterson specializes on Francophone Africa, African-Atlantic exchange, health, and gender and is working on a larger project, "Expanding Professional Horizons: Pharmacy, Gender, and Entrepreneurship in 20th-Century Senegal," that examines the emergence and expansion of African medical professionalization between 1918 and 2000. That work explores the growth of the African biomedical industry, African access to French systems, and the training of doctors, pharmacists, and midwives.

It also considers the origins and expansion of African-owned pharmacies in colonial and postcolonial Senegal. And she has begun to study the history of African American pharmacists in New Orleans.

Patterson's fascinating paper sketched the history of pharmacy in Senegal -- a topic about which there is almost no scholarship. In fact, there's almost no research on pharmacy anywhere in Africa. Drawing on arguments made by Jean and John Comaroff, Patterson traced a history that blurred distinctions between legal and illegal against a background of racial privilege. The professionalization of pharmacy in Senegal dates to the 1920s and until independence it was almost entirely dominated by whites. From a very early stage there is evidence of circumvention of regulations and by the post-war period trafficking in pharmaceuticals was linked to various kinds of smuggling -- although not apparently to trade in illegal narcotics. From the 1960s the pharmacy profession became increasingly Africanized and expanded very rapidly. Various kinds of trafficking continued -- involving both the importation and distribution of legally produced pharmaceuticals outside of legal channels and the production and distribution of counterfeit drugs. By the 2000s these trades had become big business and a market in Dakar had become the focus of the trade. In 2008-09 this market became the site of a major confrontation between traders and the authorities, which seemed to have much more to do with struggles over control and profits than with actual suppression. The market was, in fact, burned to the ground, but quickly revived.

Although it was clear that many of the pharmaceuticals involved in illicit commerce were being obtained for "recreational" uses, for the most part discussion maintained a commonly understood, and quite sharply defined, boundary between pharmaceuticals and "illegal" drugs. But discussant Justin Willis, a historian from the University of Durham, U.K., challenged us to rethink those kinds of boundaries from the perspective of local therapeutic systems. Willis, the author of Potent Brews: A Social History of Alcohol in East Africa, 1850-1999 and many articles on alcohol and drugs in African history, challenged those present to discard morality narratives and the global vocabulary of suppression and control and to focus on a simple question: why are people using these various drugs? How do they see their use? His commentary ranged productively over the examples of heroin users in Tanzania, anti-drug campaigns in Nigeria and the use of Khat in East Africa, but the questions he raised about the history of the "illegal" pharmacy trade in Senegal were especially provocative.

The vibrant unsanctioned trade in pharmaceuticals, from one perspective, represented a struggle to challenge and defy the professionalization of pharmacy and high costs that resulted from such state-sanctioned monopolies of distribution -- in the process securing for ordinary traders some cut of the large profits that the professional clique attempts to maintain for itself. Even more interesting, however, was the suggestion that the "illegal" traders not only provided drugs more conveniently and at lower cost to Senegalese consumers, but did so in a way that was more consistent with their expectations for drug therapy.


This article originally appeared on Points, an Atlantic partner site.

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Charles Ambler is a professor of history, focusing on 19th- and 20th-century Africa, at The University of Texas at El Paso. He has the author of Kenyan Communities in the Age of Imperialism.

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