Skip to main content

Distributed for Intellect Ltd

Traces of the Future

An Archaeology of Medical Science in Africa

This book presents a close look at the vestiges of twentieth-century medical work at five key sites in Africa: Senegal, Nigeria, Cameroon, Kenya, and Tanzania. The authors aim to understand the afterlife of scientific institutions and practices and the “aftertime” of scientific modernity and its attendant visions of progress and transformation. Straightforward scholarly work is juxtaposed here with altogether more experimental approaches to fieldwork and analysis, including interview fragments; brief, reflective essays; and a rich photographic archive. The result is an unprecedented view of the lingering traces of medical science from Africa’s past.

256 pages | 500 color plates | 7 x 9 | © 2016

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Intellect Ltd image

View all books from Intellect Ltd


"Scientific laboratories do more than produce scientific knowledge. They also restructure space, build communities, inspire hopes, store junk, and facilitate interpersonal relationships. When the science stops, these traces remain, continuing to shape local physical and social environments. Through a focus on five defunct or transformed medical research centers in sub-Saharan Africa, this book attempts something of an ethnography of these modern ruins. From the musical compositions of a patient at the Uzuakoli leprosarium in Nigeria to the dispersed bricks of demolished hospital buildings in Ayos, Cameroon, to late night digs inspired by rumors of buried treasure in abandoned buildings at the Amani malaria research institute in Tanzania, the authors carefully curate hundreds of examples of the remnants of 20th-century dreams of modernization gone but not forgotten. The book is mostly a bricolage of images, snippets of recorded conversations, field notes, and biographical sketches designed to provoke an affective response more than to offer any kind of historical or ethnographic analysis. At times it tries too hard to mystify the mundane, but mostly it offers an intriguing window into the breadth and depth of social and cultural effects of medical research. Recommended."


"An intriguing and innovative book that documents the afterlife of medical and scientific traces in Africa, as well as the nostalgia and tension that remain. Using a combination of methods, including ethnography, oral interviews, and exploration of material traces, the authors compensate for the limits and often nonexistence of colonial and postcolonial archives on this subject matter. The rich  photographic archives and biographies of former fieldworkers and their descendants contribute to the footprints of the past of these institutions. Trace of the Future offers a very enriching and insightful vision of a fascinating and understudied topic."

African Studies Review

"Traces of the Future is the latest collective instalment by a group of historians, anthropologists, science and technology studies scholars and biomedical scientists who have been in conversation with one another for over a decade. . . . This volume is the most experimental and visually driven, combining archival photographs, excerpts from field notes, experimental essays, and snapshots of interviews. It is a truly collective endeavour, combining the voices of eighteen artists and scholars. This book is a constellation of traces from a collaborative group that will eventually dissolve, transform or take on a new shape and form, much like the scientific labs and groups of actors depicted in the book itself. . . . [It] has the affective quality of bringing the reader into the physical and emotional experience of handling these materials. One feels like they are navigating the detritus of old medical records, or meeting the people who worked at these sites, engaging in conversations while walking among the ruins. Photographs, transcripts from conversations, short essays and quotations dot the landscape of the pages. . . . A thoughtful and thought-provoking excavation of the ambitions and afterlives of medical research in Africa."

Africa: The Journal of the International African Institute

"The creativity involved in organizing and presenting this multiplicity of traces is definitely impressive. . . . Ultimately, this book forces us to question why we tend to see the incoherent as unimportant and the non-linear as lacking in meaning. It is an existential trek for any Africanist willing to take the journey."

Journal of African History

“In an astonishing series of reports, engagements, and reflections, this book offers a powerful and often brilliant evocation of the sites and populations of a group of ruined, abandoned, or transient scientific and medical establishments in west and east Africa. Layout and imagery, as well as intelligent analysis and story-telling, build up a compelling picture of modern ambitions and their fates. Without ever lapsing into nostalgia or condescension, Traces of the Future is a pathbreaking and exemplary project to help the objects and subjects of African scientific and medical worlds follow their own novel pathways.”

Simon Schaffer | University of Cambridge, author of Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle & the Experimental Life

“There is, of course, a long history of anthropological writing on the subject of the future, but recently the discipline has witnessed a renewed interest in all kinds of futures—distant, near, and very often also irretrievably past. It is the latter kind, that of futures past, that is investigated in this wonderful book. Well informed and researched, and never dull, this edited volume explores various medical research stations and health centers across Africa, thereby offering a delicate contemplation of former ideas of future-oriented colonial science and medicine, and the ways in which they underpinned the ideologies of colonialist modernity and of progress that shaped these places and restructured the worlds around them. Combining various voices and modes of writing with original visual ethnographic explorations, this book reflects upon memory, nostalgia, and the passing of time, and as such it offers a delicate and often poetic and intimate but always insightful analysis of how the various times of the colonial past convert into the space of the now. A must read!”

Filip de Boek | author of Urban Now: City Life in Congo and Kinshasa: Tales of the Invisible City

“This elegant, field-defining collection of sparkling originality excels as it curates, joining bits about five modern scientific sites in Africa with playful lines. The entire package suggests vital new affective methods for our times. These unruly junctions will productively challenge STS humanists, ethnographic historians, and students of global health practices. In our times of often ungainly, overtheorized immoderations, their innovative traces and tracing enable thinking deeply about relatively affluent African pasts. In these erstwhile spaces of scientific practice and development dreams, much remains not grim, rather bursting still with whims and guile.”

Nancy Rose Hunt | University of Michigan, author of Colonial Lexicon and A Nervous State

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press