The Politics of Care and Repair in Postcolonial Uganda

Visiting scholar Marissa Mika revealed the complex technopolitics that challenge patient care in an Ugandan radiotherapy unit where a dilapidated and over-worked “roasting machine” offers the last line of palliative care for women suffering from cancer.

Mika’s research drew from a variety of methodological sources to illuminate the myriad complications that shape the politics of care and repair taking place in the Mulago National Referral Hospital in Kampala, Uganda, where women suffering from advanced cervical and breast cancers “lined up to be ‘roasted’” by an aged Cobalt 60 radiotherapy machine that operates twenty hours a day, seven days a week.

Mika came to UC Davis to present her work, “‘This is a Ladies Unit’: Radiotherapy, Technopolitics, and History in Postcolonial Uganda” as the spring lecture of the Cross-Cultural Women’s and gender History Consortium (CCW&gH), co-sponsored with the Women and Gender in the World Research Cluster, which is funded by the UC Davis Humanities Institute.

Mika is a visiting researcher at UC Berkeley’s Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society while completing her PhD in the History and Sociology of Science program at University of Pennsylvania. The talk is a chapter in progress from her dissertation titled, “‘Research is Our Resource’: Surviving Experiments and Politics at an African Cancer Institute.”

“Oncology is an ambivalent field of practices that involves poisoning, cutting, and burning – particularly burning – which raises concerns about the grimness of oncology’s violent healing,” Mika said. Taking the dual task of “healing and harming,” Mika explored the long-term ramifications of medical care in postcolonial Uganda through a study of the Mulago Hospital and its “junk” radiotherapy machine: the Cobalt 60.

Described by Mika as a “cheap, second-hand machine,” the Cobalt 60 was made in China and sent to sub-saharan Africa as a gift of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1995, who hailed the machine as “simple, rugged, and mechanical.”

Twenty years later, the radioactive power source, cobalt, is decayed past the point of effectiveness and has only managed to stay functional (after IAEA interest waned) on account of “the incredible and creative work of the staff of The Uganda Cancer Institute,” Mika explained.

Mika revealed the complex factors preventing national and international actors from improving conditions for cancer patients in Kampala, and constricting the local “culture of repair” which nonetheless offers hope in a desperate situation.

Using gender as a lens of analysis, Mika’s talk examined the kind of care provided to mostly female cancer patients at the Mulago oncology unit. She explained that women come to the center to alleviate their pain, but nurses also administer another kind of care, “for the hope of a socially reproductive future.”

Corrie Decker, director of CCW&gH and Assistant Professor of History at UC Davis, said “Marissa Mika’s talk on the intersection between the global technopolitics of healing and the history of women’s health in postcolonial Uganda engaged with key areas of inquiry explored in the Cross-Cultural Women’s and Gender History consortium and the Women and Gender in the World cluster. Her research is interdisciplinary and cross-cultural methodologically, yet thoroughly grounded in Ugandan history and culture.”

Mika pushed the audience to see the complexity of this case by bringing together the post-9/11 international politics that make it very difficult to transport radioactive materials, the ingenuity of Ugandan “repair culture,” the gendered dynamics of palliative care experienced by women suffering from cancer, and the unequal function of technopolitics where – quoting Père Lafontant in Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains: the Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer – appropriate technology means “good things for rich people and shit for the poor.”

On Tuesday May 5, the Women and Gender in the World Research Cluster will hold another public event – the Spring 2015 Workshop “Women’s and Gender Scholarship in Global Contexts: The State of the Campus, the Future of Collaboration.” Register here if you would like to attend.

– Stephanie Maroney, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies