Over the past couple of days, my internship supervisor and I have worked on designing a project where I will be using the Entomology Collections to develop content for a website associated with the South African Museum. Called Biodiversity Explorer, it contains webpages relaying information about the plants and animals that call southern Africa home. This has been a complete switch for me from the focus of these first couple weeks in South Africa. However, just as I was making the transition into the natural sciences, the interdisciplinary nature of life came along to keep me from neatly organizing everything into distinct realms without relation to one another.
While reading a journal article on the history of forensic entomology in southern Africa, an anecdote suddenly appeared reminding me that especially here in Africa, everything has cultural significance, and that I can learn new cultural ideas (and words) in a scientific journal. The paper shared the story of a Zimbabwean n’anga, or traditional healer, put on trial for the medicinal treatment he provided to a patients. When his potions were examined, entomologists identified significant amounts of blister beetle (see photo) parts; enough to cause internal trauma for his deceased patients. Given the opportunity to present a defense, the n’anga cross-examined the entomologist, asking if the amount of blister beetle parts necessary to cause internal trauma applied to Europeans or Africans. He maintained as part of his defense that Africans are “tougher” than Europeans.
I had to pause and think for a few minutes about the story I had just read. Here I was reading a scientific journal article and I’m being presented with new cultural vocabulary and a blatant case of ethnocentrism. And of course I’m reading it in the country where one of the worst ethnocentric governments ceased to exist less than 30 years ago. It just gave me another dose of the perspective that I requested last week when we made our isivivane at Robben Island.