Continuity and Change in the Healing Practices Among West African Immigrants in New York City: A Case Study

Researcher: Stoller, Paul

Research Project: Continuity and Change in the Healing Practices Among West African Immigrants in New York City: A Case Study

Region: West Africa / New York

This research project is a retrospective study of healing practices among West African immigrants in New York City.  Most of the immigrants considered in this study are from ethnic Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. Many of them have resided in New York City for more than 40 years, which means that they have adjusted, some better than others, to the ever-changing economic, political, social, and cultural conditions of the United States.  Having conducted ongoing ethnographic fieldwork among these immigrants for many decades, I have observed continuity and change in how these strangers in a strange land attempt to maintain their health and wellbeing.

When the need arises, most of my West African friends have gone to see American physicians.  Some of them have been to New York City emergency rooms and a few of them have sought treatment –for asthma, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and cancer at New York City hospitals. Even so, the men and women I’ve known over the years have never abandoned more traditional healing approaches to illness, health, and wellbeing—divination, herbal medicines, and healing rituals performed by itinerant specialists who travel from West Africa to New York City to serve their diasporic communities.  What is it about these non-western approaches to health and wellbeing that compels these men and women to seek the services of marabouts (Islamic healers), diviners, and non-Islamic healers?

In this project I intend to engage in participant observation and conduct informal as well as semi-structured interviews with men and women who have spent at least 20 years in New York City. Some of the interviews will in-person at the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem market, the site of my ongoing research in New York City, some will unfold in the New York apartments of the West African immigrants, and some take place via Zoom or FaceTime. In this ongoing fieldwork I consider a number of issues:

  1. What is appealing about Western approaches to health and wellbeing?
  2. How has Western medicine changed a West African immigrant’s approach to health and wellbeing?
  3. What is unappealing about Western approaches to health and wellbeing?
  4. What kind of non-Western measures have taken to ensure health and wellbeing?
  5. What is it about non-Western systems of healing that continues inspire confidence?

This research will result in several academic essays as well as a monograph on how an aging group of West African immigrants, who live far from home and family, cope with illness and alienation in an ever-changing world.