Thoughts on Theses: Bongani Ndlovu
Issue   |   Wed, 02/26/2014 - 01:07

Q: What is your thesis about?
A: In brief, it’s about the legal and political institutionalization of indigenous medicine in South Africa, against a backdrop of disdain and suppression originating in the colonial and apartheid eras.

The statute that is most authoritative in guiding my research is the Traditional Health Practitioners Act. It was originally passed in 2003, but was challenged in the constitutional court. Various groups expressed concerns about the scientific legitimacy of indigenous healing practices, arguing that they do not discriminate sufficiently between the physiological (material) and the psycho-spiritual (mystical) aspects of health. After a revision of the act, it passed again in 2007 and has been active since, although it has not resulted in any important substantive changes in the way that indigenous medicine is popularly viewed, portrayed and regulated.

My analysis yields two teachings. A.) the horror of apartheid (the political consequences it had and the impression it has left on South African people) is such that contemporary South African politics and legislation have reverted by some degree to what they were during the colonial period, the shortcomings of which South African lawmakers have somewhat lost sight. B.) the Act I mentioned reflects a profound misconstrual of indigenous medicine that is consistent with the paternalistic, civilizing impulse of colonial legislation.

The act is underlain with assumptions that favor the allopathic model’s answer to the question: What is good health? This question is not simply scientific, but also philosophical (the Western mind-body split as inherited from Descartes, a hyperscientific understanding of health that ignores the psychosocial elements of illness, etc.). Allopathic medicine has ideological underpinnings that are often forgotten when weighing it against indigenous medicine. The act thus fails to establish meaningful regulation of indigenous medicine because it does not try to understand indigenous medicine on its own terms.
I think my topic is super interesting because it involves an in-depth look at law, politics, culture, science and medical convention. To understand what I’m going on about, you’ll have to read more of my project.

Q: Why did you choose this particular topic?
A: Indigenous medicine has always been on my mind because I come from a traditionalist family in South Africa. My parents and grandparents have always consulted traditional healers in addition to western doctors. I thought it would be interesting to look at the history of traditional medicine and learn about what is happening in that realm right now.

Q: When did you start your thesis process and what were the first few steps like?
A: I started the process back in April of my junior year and it simply started with having some conversations with Adam Sitze, a professor in the LJST department and my advisor. He encouraged me to put all my ideas into writing and I eventually decided upon the most developed idea and began my thesis.

Q: What has been some of the most difficult parts of writing a thesis?
A: Its constant presence in my life has been the biggest pressure. Also, another difficult thing is that I have to put together an analytical work, but it is really easy to slip into descriptive writing as I am dealing with history.

Q: What has been your research process like?
A: It has been a little tough to find resources relevant to the topic. There is a lot of writing on witchcraft, which is a related topic. You can’t speak about indigenous medicine without evoking witchcraft as they are often confused.
If you take South Africa, for instance, and look at its colonial and apartheid period, witchcraft and indigenous medicine have been grouped together into one thing, with healers often being called “witch doctors” at best and evil charlatans at worst. At any rate, I received funding to go do research in South Africa, so I had the opportunity to meet and converse with traditional healers in South Africa over winter break.

Q: What was the most unexpected thing about the senior thesis project?
A: I didn’t expect that I’d end up caring as much as I do about the issues about which I’m writing. I cannot imagine that this will be the end of my work on and involvement in the question of indigenous medicine. It is also surprising the extent to which distinctions between disciplines can be meaningless.

Q: What is the most valuable lesson you are taking away from thesis writing?
A: I think writing a thesis gives students a valuable opportunity to put literally everything they’ve learned during their time at Amherst to practice. Things I learned as a first-year student, things I learned from classes I hated, things I learned in classes that I took only as social experiments and the conversations I’ve had with people. All these things, to varying degrees to be sure, have influenced the project. The process also changes the way in which you understand and relate to the faculty, especially those professors you think have had the most influence in the lessons you’ve retained.

Q: Do you have any advice for students considering writing a thesis?
A: Try to start thinking about what you might be interested in taking up as a topic as early as possible. The more of a head start you get, the easier the transition is from being a potential thesis writer to being an actual thesis writer.

Q: Where do you stand in terms of the timeline?
A: I am currently working on my last two chapters. I have most of the ideas present in my head and just have to transform those ideas into writing. I would say I am close to being done with the project, but you never know because even when you write something that you think is brilliant and complete, you pull out a book and realize you’ve missed a huge point or that an argument is lacking. Deadlines determine when you are done with the project, but you never feel like you are completely done with it because there is always something else that could be relevant to your topic.

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Comments
Johnsean (not verified) says:
Thu, 02/27/2014 - 09:03

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