The Sierra Leone Indigenous Traditional Healers Union (SLITHU) displays free samples of its herbal medicines as its response to the government’s “free medical care” initiative. Freetown, 2012.

A cheat sheet for making talismans used by “Koko Pinya,” healer and performer. Xeroxed references strike a balance between reproductive technologies of mass media and restricted esoteric forms of knowledge. Bo Waterside, 2013.

A billboard advertising SLITHU, using a plethora of images that align the group with prevailing sources of power (Sierra Leone’s president is at the center, while I, an international researcher, appear in the bottom left). Kenema, 2013.

“Medicine, Culture, Crisis” is an upcoming project that spotlights the role of embodied performance in Sierra Leonean medical practice and public health. Amidst the wave of policy proposals and biomedical research engendered by the Ebola crisis, any understanding of local health care as it is lived requires attention to the role of performative practice and embodied knowledge in Sierra Leone’s medical landscape. In this region, medicine, the power over life and death, has long been a crucial field upon which battles over local and external legitimacy and knowledge are staged.

In Sierra Leone, little distinction is made between “cultural dancers” (i.e. entertainers using popular localized idioms such as masked dance and acrobatics) and ‘traditional healers and herbalists’ (i.e. medical professionals employing herbal and spiritual interventions, often through the use of Islamic scripture). Most dancers are healers and many healers are dancers. Both boast extraordinary skills and derive their legitimacy from local knowledge. Medicines are composed of material ingredients, esoteric knowledge, and performances undertaken throughout their preparation. In the Mende language, the term halei refers to charms and amulets, herbal treatments, masked dance, initiatory societies, and biomedical pharmaceuticals; the multivalence of this term epitomizes the mutual constitution of performance, knowledge, and medicine.

Such issues have gained further gravitas amidst what has become the worst Ebola Viral Disease (EVD) outbreak in recorded history. Medical workers, whether biomedical or “traditional,” have become both treaters and transmitters of the virus, and health care provision will necessarily undergo intense analysis and transformation in the years ahead. Questions abound: How has EVD been read by various actors through local medical idioms? How will living with the constant risk of viral resurgence transform the performance of local rites such as cleansing ceremonies and funerals? What regulations will existing village medical methods face and at what cost? What effects will the stigma of hospitals as spaces of death visit upon patients and medical practitioners? How will international interventions affect the range of diverse and adaptive performative practices that compensate for otherwise extremely limited health care options and help facilitate ‘quests for therapy’ in contemporary Sierra Leone? In the international rush to stabilize Sierra Leone’s long-neglected health care system following a medical crisis that has crippled the nation, healers and their forms of embodied and esoteric knowledge will likely face further marginalization. Yet these healers’ participation will be vital to the task of rebuilding public health. This research project brings local medical knowledge and performances into dialogue with biomedical interventions, illuminating new experimentations and the conflicts they inspire.