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Disease control and public health have been key aspects of social and political life in sub-Saharan Africa since time immemorial. With variations across space and time, many societies viewed disease as the result of imbalances in persons and societies and combined the use of materia medica from the natural world, spiritual divination, and community healing to redress these imbalances. While early encounters between African and European healing systems were still marked by mutual exchanges and adaptations, the emergence of European germ theory-based biomedicine and the establishment of racialized colonial states in the 19th century increasingly challenged the value of African therapeutic practices for disease control on the continent. Initially, colonial states focused on preserving the health of European soldiers, administrators, and settlers, who were deemed particularly vulnerable to tropical climate and its diseases. Around 1900, however, they started paying more attention to diseases among Africans, whose health and population growth were now deemed crucial for economic development and the legitimacy of colonial rule. Fueled by new insights and techniques provided by tropical medicine, antisleeping sickness campaigns would be among the first major interventions. After World War I, colonial health services expanded their campaigns against epidemic diseases, but also engaged with broader public health approaches that addressed reproductive problems and the social determinants of both disease and health. Colonial states were not the only providers of biomedical healthcare in colonial Africa. Missionary societies and private companies had their own health services, with particular logics, methods, and focuses. And after 1945, international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) increasingly invested in health campaigns in Africa as well. Moreover, Africans actively participated in colonial disease control, most notably as nurses, midwives, and doctors. Nevertheless, Western biomedicine never gained hegemony in colonial Africa. Many Africans tried to avoid or minimize participation in certain campaigns or continued to utilize the services of local healers and diviners, often in combination with particular biomedical approaches. To what extent colonial disease control impacted on disease incidence and demography is still controversially debated.

Article

In the history of religion in Africa, women have contributed richly to the diversity of indigenous, Christian, and Islamic spiritual practices prevalent within their communities. As mediums, healer-diviners, ministers, mystics, prophets, poets, priestesses, theologians, and spiritual advisors, they are integral to the creation and maintenance of possession cults and other indigenous religious societies, Islamic Sufi orders, mainline and African-initiated churches, as well as new and emerging Christian and Islamic movements. Often inhabiting pluralistic worlds, women weave together creative and dynamic spiritual tapestries that give their lives coherence. An investigation into the experiences of women reveals spaces of agency and constraint, portraits of women’s intimate encounters with the divine, accounts of women’s indigenization of Christianity and reform of Islam, stories of discrimination and of healing, struggles to create more liberating theologies, and stories of extraordinary women shaping religious life and practice on the African continent in irrepressible ways.