Speaker Series - Genese Sodikoff
Friday, April 17, 2020, 03:00pm
The Plague After Death: A Political Ecology of the Underground in Madagascar
In Madagascar’s central highlands, outbreaks of bubonic plague occur annually. At the turn of the twentieth century, the French implemented strict plague control measures, including rules for burying the dead. These rules persist and have strained Malagasy people’s relationships to their deceased ancestors. The rules stipulate that plague victims must not be buried in familial tombs but in unmarked pits. And they must not be exhumed for a secondary burial ritual or transferred for a period of at least seven years. Colonial-era scientists conjectured that Yersinia pestis, the plague bacterium, might survive in subterranean tombs. Scientists today surmise that plague bacteria may survive in rodent burrow systems, which leaves open the question of whether bodies buried in plague pits are implicated in the plague’s persistence in the environment.
Anthropologists of zoonosis have focused on multispecies interactions and social inequalities of the surface. A political ecology of the plague, however, compels the ethnographer to investigate what lies beneath: to explore the speculative underground ecology that has guided terrifying mortuary policies, and to learn how health inequities alter the microbial life of the soil and breed resistance.
Genese Sodikoff is an environmental and medical anthropologist at Rutgers University, Newark and the Director of Rutgers' Center for African Studies. Her research has examined the politics of biodiversity conservation, human-animal relations, and extinction events in Madagascar. She is the author of Forest and Labor in Madagascar: From Colonial Concession to Global Biosphere and editor of The Anthropology of Extinction: Essays on Culture and Species Death. In 2015, she was the recipient of a Mellon New Directions Fellowship to pursue training in epidemiology. Her current project in Madagascar investigates the persistence of bubonic plague in the environment and its effects on mortuary policy and people’s relationships to deceased ancestors.