Over the past few decades, maternal childbirth injuries have become a potent symbol of Western biomedical intervention in Africa, affecting over one million women across the global south. Western-funded hospitals have sprung up, offering surgical sutures that ostensibly allow women who suffer from obstetric fistula to return to their communities in full health. Journalists, NGO staff, celebrities, and some physicians have crafted a stock narrative around this injury, depicting afflicted women as victims of a backward culture who have their fortunes dramatically reversed by Western aid. With Beyond Surgery, medical anthropologist Anita Hannig unsettles this picture for the first time and reveals the complicated truth behind the idea of biomedical intervention as quick-fix salvation.
Through her in-depth ethnography of two repair and rehabilitation centers operating in Ethiopia, Hannig takes the reader deep into a world inside hospital walls, where women recount stories of loss and belonging, shame and delight. As she chronicles the lived experiences of fistula patients in clinical treatment, Hannig explores the danger of labeling “culture” the culprit, showing how this common argument ignores the larger problem of insufficient medical access in rural Africa. Beyond Surgery portrays the complex social outcomes of surgery in an effort to deepen our understanding of medical missions in Africa, expose cultural biases, and clear the path toward more effective ways of delivering care to those who need it most.
About the Author
Anita Hannig is assistant professor of anthropology at Brandeis University, in Massachusetts.
“The genius of ethnography often involves finding a practice or idea the examination of which conjures up unexpected larger insights. Hannig finds just this kind of topic in fistula repair surgery in northern Ethiopia—both for the cultural worlds of women patients and foreign missionary doctors. Beyond Surgery is a major achievement of writing and analysis.”
— Donald L. Donham, University of California, Davis
“In this incisive and immensely insightful study, Hannig moves beyond the hype of heroic surgery to examine the complex social, moral, and aesthetic landscape—the interplay of science and sanctity, loss and recovery—that comprises the intricate work of care, here as everywhere.”
— Jean Comaroff, Harvard University
“Hannig has written an important and deeply touching testament to the practical importance of long-term careful ethnographic research in global health. Beyond Surgery has profound implications for debates on global health disparities. It deserves to be read by anthropologists and practitioners alike.”
— Stacey Langwick, Cornell University