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Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing Blog


Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing


Managing uncertainty: livelihoods in lockdown

charlotte.hawkins.1722 May 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the widespread uncertainty of everyday lives in global capitalism. For example, uncertainties related to health and resources have been exacerbated, and it has been clearly exposed how they are both often so closely intertwined. Various ethnographies around the world have demonstrated the contextual specificities of how people pragmatically mitigate uncertainties, for example through work and cooperation. This is at once a global and a specific experience.

The expected linearity of ageing is evidently disrupted by factors in the wider world, such as pandemics, politics and the economy. Typical ‘industrialist’ categories of age assign certain everyday activities of economic production to particular life stages (Honwana, 2012: 12): education and childhood, a time of dependence; work and adulthood, a time of independence; and retirement and rest in old age, which in Uganda, is said to be ideally said to be a time of interdependence (Whyte, 2017). This feeds into the stereotype of old age as a condition of certainty, in contrast to precarity faced by youth. The majority of older research participants in Kampala are still in full-time work to provide for their families, often ‘Monday to Monday’. This challenges notions of work in the city as an activity of younger generations, and of transient uncertainty as a preoccupation of youth (Honwana, 2012; Thieme, 2018).

Woman carrying mangoes to sell in April 2019.

Many sources of income have been interrupted by social distancing regulations in Uganda. Many people rely on daily income to feed their families, so relief efforts for social protection at a household level are increasingly urgent[1],[2]. To friends in Kampala, this has emphasized the importance of social networks, and particularly neighbours, who can share whatever they have, sometimes assistance they may have received from further afield. And besides resources, the current pandemic situation has shown how people often ‘engage with the ambiguity of our surroundings’ through solidarity and dialogue with each other (Whyte, 1997). Particularly accentuated is the role of mobile phones as a tool to navigate conditions of uncertainty. We saw this across our fieldsites, in the ways people use mobile phones to overcome distances and maintain relationships and care for older people. And we’ve since all seen how important phone calls and WhatsApp have been to adapt to unprecedented times and keep us in contact. This uncertain context also supports the role of ethnographic research, which allows us to look at the patterns in dialogue, how people engage with the wider and indeterminate world, and how this responds to and shapes certain trajectories.


  • Anguyo, I and Storer, L. (2020) ‘In times of COVID-19 Kampala has become ‘un-Ugandan’, LSE. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/africaatlse/2020/04/09/kampala-epidemic-un-ugandan-society-in-times-covid-19/
  • Honwana, A.M., 2012. The time of youth: work, social change, and politics in Africa, 1st ed. ed. Kumarian Press Pub, Sterling, Va.
  • Whyte, 2017. Epilogue: Successful Aging and Desired Interdependence., in: Successful Aging as a Contemporary Obsession: Global Perspectives. Rutgers University Press., NEW BRUNSWICK, CAMDEN, NEWARK, NEW JERSEY; LONDON, pp. 243–248.
  • Thieme, T.A., 2018. The hustle economy: Informality, uncertainty and the geographies of getting by. Progress in Human Geography 42, 529–548. https://doi.org/10.1177/0309132517690039
  • Walter, M and Bing, J. (2020) ‘Uganda’s Economic Response to Covid-19: the case for immediate household relief’ Centre for Development Alternatives (CDA). https://cda.co.ug/2140/ugandas-economic-response-to-covid-19-the-case-for-immediate-household-relief/
  • Whyte, S.R., 1997. Questioning misfortune: the pragmatics of uncertainty in Eastern Uganda, Cambridge studies in medical anthropology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge ; New York.

[1]Anguyo, I and Storer, L. (2020) ‘In times of COVID-19 Kampala has become ‘un-Ugandan’, LSE. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/africaatlse/2020/04/09/kampala-epidemic-un-ugandan-society-in-times-covid-19/

[2] Walter, M and Bing, J. (2020) ‘Uganda’s Economic Response to Covid-19: the case for immediate household relief’ Centre for Development Alternatives (CDA). https://cda.co.ug/2140/ugandas-economic-response-to-covid-19-the-case-for-immediate-household-relief/


COVID-19 in Cameroon: concurrent narratives and the battle for dignity

p.awondo11 May 2020

In Cameroon, the first case of Cov-2 SARS infection was published on the 6th of March, 2020. It involved a French-Cameroonian national who arrived in Cameroon through the airport of Yaoundé, the political capital, on the 24th of February. He was hospitalised and treated at the care centre of the Yaoundé Central Hospital. Today (the 9th of May, 2o20) Cameroon is, after Nigeria and Ghana, the country with the highest number of Covid-19 cases in sub-Saharan Africa: 2267 cases. Among these patients, 1019 have been cured and 108 have died. The first death occurred in Douala, the economic capital. The patient in question was a 63-year-old man who allegedly took in a woman from France and “escaped” quarantine.

The Cameroonian government had announced a number of measures in early March to stem the rapid spread of the pandemic. These measures were similar to those enacted in other African countries, with the closure of air, land and sea borders, partial confinement, the closure of schools and universities, partial closure of markets, bars and other places of worship, a ban on going out after 6 p.m., the mandatory wearing of masks in public spaces and other barriers such as systematic hand washing and disinfection of certain public places such as markets.

The epidemic of polemics and the reversal of stigma

As soon as the first case was announced, a certain psychosis had spread among the population. The presence of the macabre tally of the pandemic in European countries and particularly in France was so strong on social networks and other traditional media including television and the written press that people feared the worst.

Analysts and specialists on Africa were adding to the psychosis by predicting the worst.

In turn, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the WHO Secretary-General sounded the alarm by calling on African countries to “prepare for the worst”. While objectively feared because of a history of fairly recent epidemics (Ebola, cholera etc.), these various calls will also create controversy. Many African intellectuals will be outraged by the tone of these UN forums by recalling the condescension that was represented by the fact that they were being attacked by the media on a continent that remained relatively unscathed. On social networks, reactions were pouring in, all denouncing this “Western obsession with Afro-pessimism” which reflexively sees catastrophes in everything on the continent. Other commentators even question the announced health aid. In Cameroon, France’s announced support is viewed with suspicion. This policy of suspicion is exacerbated by a polemic on a video from a French news channel. The video excerpt in which two French doctors discuss the possibility of a vaccine against Covi-19 and in which one of them mentions the possibility of clinical and vaccine trials on the African continent goes viral. On social networks, the polemic is growing, African and Cameroonian intellectuals and public figures are taking a stand. In their substance, these interventions castigate the so-called “colonialist and paternalistic” dimension of French doctors’ statements. They are accused of wanting to impose a vaccine without respect for ethical standards on the continent. These facts are reminiscent of colonial medicine. The tribunes that will continue are the trial of a fixist vision of Africa and of the catastrophism dismissed by Western commentators of the beginning of the epidemic on the African continent.

This controversy, known as the vaccine controversy, is in addition to the controversy that arose when the first cases were announced in Cameroon. In the first week of the epidemic at the local level, the press relaying the moods of the population accused the diaspora of having imported the virus into the country. It is true that Cameroon, open to the world through its two largest cities Yaounde and Douala, saw the first cases from France land on its soil. The press and the communication coming from the Minister of Health will be harmful in terms of stigmatisation of the diaspora to the point where major media will end up opening the debate on the front page.  By recalling the number of passengers disembarked on Cameroonian soil on a daily basis during the first two weeks, by stressing that among them there were positive cases, the ministerial communication did not only serve the need for public health, it also had the effect of stigmatising these “unwise travellers”, scapegoats of a dreadful epidemic which for once is imported from rich countries into the poorest like Cameroon. For a few weeks, the lynching in tabloids and on social networks of the local category known as “mbenguite” (travellers, migrants to Europe) became a stigma. This is a historical reversal in a context where “mbinguists” are often socially valued as providers of economic goods, seen as a resource due to to their migratory lifestyles. Potential carriers of Covid-19, mbinguists have become in Cameroon the paradigmatic repulsive figure of the reverse stigmatisation that took the “disease from Europe” to task.

The quest for medication and the return of African medicine

“In Congo-Brazzaville, covid-organics will soon be administered to the sick. A first shipment was received and symbolically handed over to Florent Ntsiba, chief of staff to President Denis Sassou-Nguesso. Other countries including Guinea-Bissau, Niger and Equatorial Guinea have already received their share of the treatment developed in Madagascar”. this excerpt could be read on the africanews.fr website on the morning of 10 May 2020.

To understand the circulation of this Malagasy potion, we have to go back a few weeks. Since the beginning of the epidemic, the quest for the drug has been ongoing. In French-speaking Africa, as in the rest of the world, the controversy around chloroquine is raging. In the local interpretation, the powerful lobbies of the world refuse to pay attention to the cheapest drug because the famous protocol of the French researcher Professor Didier Raoult already exists. On social networks and online media, users oppose the need to use or not to use the protocol of the one that the media call “the druid of Marseille”, in reference to the manufacturer of the Gallic magic potion in the famous comic book Astérix et Obélix.

The positions taken by Cameroonians on the Internet are similar to those taken by most Africans who are familiar with chloric acid and almost make Didier Raoult a hero.

As with every epidemic, the debate around the capacity of traditional African medicines is re-emerging. This time it is amplified by global controversies and the uncertainties of Western countries disoriented by the force of the virus.

On the 10th of April, Malagasy President Andry Rajoelina announced that Malagasy researchers have found a cure for Covid-19, “Today I am officially announcing here the successful and good results of the trials of our cure,” he said, “and it can be said that it has given a conclusive result on Covid-19 patients in Madagascar and that it can limit and mitigate its effects on the human body”. As the French online journal le Point points out, the controversy will start immediately. “The World Health Organization (WHO) has recognised that some traditional medicines and remedies “can alleviate the symptoms” of the coronavirus, but recalled that “there is no evidence that these substances can prevent or cure the disease”. The organisation even voted as early as 2007 for a resolution “calling for a phasing out of oral artemisinin-based monotherapies from the markets”. Artemisia is banned in several European countries”.

A meme that has been in circulation on Whatsapp groups, talking about standing ‘against’ the WHO, an organisation that ‘does not know Africa’.

Al Jazeera article on the Covid-Organics herbal remedy

In fact, from the very beginning of the pandemic, the African web was stirring with discussions about a local medical formula. Long before the first official case was even declared, many protocols for herbal teas, herbal potions and other so-called traditional barks were already circulating in Cameroon. This return of the traditional pharmacopoeia is accompanied by a militant pan-African discourse about “African solutions” and the “valorisation of the African pharmacopoeia”. A campaign that the Malagasy president will also take up during his many outings during which he values the African support of his fellow leaders as much as the orders already being shipped.

The quest for African medicine is thus becoming a pan-African militancy issue in an epidemic and pandemic context where the fatigue of being assisted by the West has been expressed. In the majority of comments, people react in support of this herbal tea and the WHO’s warnings are interpreted as a posture attributable to imperialism carried by an organisation that plays into the hands of the powerful and in particular the big global pharmaceutical groups.

In reaction to the WHO’s first comments on the issue, African countries such as Senegal are placing orders to Madagascar. On WhatsApp and Facebook, a small anti-WHO campaign is even taking shape, often featuring situations where African pharmacopoeia is used, with subtitles that are addressed directly to the WHO, as if to warn it against any hindrance to the use of African medicine.

The Malagasy herbal tea has also had the effect not only of taking the African world as a witness against the Western medical imperialism protected by the WHO (according to the polemicists) but also of freeing the actors who had hitherto on the continent intended to proceed in the same way.

Thus, in Cameroon, since the beginning of May, a polemic has been raging in the city of Douala since the Catholic Archbishop of Douala, who is a great adept of traditional pharmacopoeia, set up a potion. Advocating pharmaceutical nationalism, the archbishop is running a strong media campaign which has the active support of public figures (for example, he received 50 million XAF from a businessman), but also many Internet users. However, the medical system has been very cautious about taking these potions and any other form of traditional medication against Covid 19.

The quest for the medicine has thus become the quest for African dignity and its opportunity to rebuild its coat of arms in a world that sees it as the childhood of the world according to Hegel’s formula.