The political economy of public healing in Great Lakes Africa

Start - End 
2021 - 2021 (ongoing)



The political economy of public healing in the Great Lakes region of Africa has historically revolved around fertility. Central actor has been the ngoma (drum) institution of kubandwa, which has been characterized by historians as a) being a puppet of court and clan figures to legitimate their rule, or b) being site of (female, anarchic) resistance against central (male, state) powers. The emphasis on the political realm is due to the reliance on court and clan traditions, which often remain silent or speak very anachronistically about social-economic relations. My thesis aims to place socio-economic life at the heart of political arrangements in Burundi’s history. Most of the research literature  deals with northern inter-lacustrine Africa, Cwezi-kubandwa’s place of origin. My attention is on the southern inter-lacustrine zone, in particular the area that became Burundi, where - like elsewhere - relations between cattle keeping and agriculture varied in time and place.[1] Understanding fertility through its social-economic dimension will enlighten us on how women and men took hold of and developed the Cwezi-kubandwa association in its Ryangombe and Kitara offshoots and sought its therapeutic potential. I place fertility central in the analysis of the political economy of public healing, because farmers, herders, and hunter-gatherers have historically sought fertility – in progeny (women and men), in land and in cattle. Securing and enhancing fertility is what has given legitimacy to a healer, a prophet, or a ‘political’ ruler; the upsetting of fertility is what shakes that legitimacy or what allows people to assert their capacity (as mediums and initiates) to restore fertility. Our first questions: How has fertility been distributed among the inhabitants of Burundi in the 1930s? How has the growth and shrinkage of economic resources contextualized the perception of health and healing, and vice versa? How have fertility resources been allocated following the game of power? One has to look for the political units who have been in charge of allocating the society’s resources. Understanding the political economy of Burundi in the Great Lakes region requires looking at the specific historical actors who have assumed positions of government beyond kinship models or wealth-in-people logic. I propose a renovated 'mode of production’ approach. Kubandwa was the African counterpart of guilds/Hanze/corporations in Western Europe  [this is a working hypothesis].



From David Schoenbrun over David Newbury to Jean-Pierre Chrétien, the research literature also pays attention to micro- and macroecological environments. Phenomena such as drought, disease and famine are particularly noteworthy here. My proposition is to study the term ‘fertility’ with its associated terms in the languages spoken in the area of Burundi and the larger Great Lakes region. What has been the notion of fertility? A historical-linguistic analysis will reveal the core meanings of the notion of fertility, along with its associated words, over the centuries. When the connotations of the term are mapped out, we will see the balance between different understandings of fertility: socio-economic relations will reveal themselves.


The socio-economic dimension of public healing is marked by gender. Part of the gendered history concerns pastoral work, and the evolution in farming: the introduction of American maize and beans for example, which generally placed a higher burden on women in the field of agriculture. Source and follower of kubandwa were often men, often women. Historians have expressed mixed views on kubandwa’s potential for social mobility for women. My contention is that public healing offered diverging opportunities and accorded duties for gender development according to the specific socio-economic relations and relations to the state present at any given time.


Kubandwa is a historically variable ngoma institute, which has been manifested in the Great Lakes region from the 1500s until today. Ethnographic collections are the entry point into this history, because the materials used were considered part and parcel of the creative power to handle fertility, while also linking them to the instrumental power, the capacity to demand or exchange necessary material goods.[2]


[1] Jean-Pierre Chrétien, The Great Lakes of Africa. Two Thousand Years of History (WHERE: Zone Books, 2003):, 81-82.

[2] The couple creative – instrumental power is derived from David Schoenbrun,  A Green Place, a Good Place: Agrarian Change, Gender, and Social Identity in the Great Lakes Region to the Fifteenth Century (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1998).



Phd Student(s)