The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

•February 18, 2010 • 4 Comments

“Doctors took her cells without asking. Those cells never died. They launched a medical revolution and a multi-million dollar industry. More than 20 years later, her children found out. Their lives would never be the same.”

A recent post at Black Looks reminded me of a fascinating story I came across in one of my earliest courses in medical anthropology. The story is that of Henrietta Lacks, a 31 year old poor black woman from Baltimore, Maryland (USA) who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951. During her illness, Henrietta’s cervical cancer cells were taken from her body without her permission, and following her death, her case became among the most famous examples of ‘bad’ medical ethics particularly where race and class were involved.

Coincidentally, a new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (February 2010) explores, in greater depth, the story of “a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors” and whose cells, the ‘HeLa’ line, (as they came to be known in science) “became one of the most important tools in medicine.”

The HeLa cells were the first of their kind. In fact:

Those cells became the first human tissue to replicate indefinitely in test tubes, launching a series of revolutions in medicine. The value of the so-called HeLa cell line that sprung from Lacks’ tumor is incalculable: Its resilience and rapid growth made it ideal for testing Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine, developing numerous cancer drugs, studying basic cellular processes, and honing experimental methods now standard in biology. Over the years, Lacks’ cells have been sold for $10 to as much as $10,000 a vial—and her chronically impoverished family has received nothing.

Sixty years after Lacks’ cells were taken from her in a ‘blacks only’ ward at Johns Hopkins hospital, her ‘immortal’ cells (they are still growing even today) continue to be bought and propagated in research labs around the world by the billions. They have helped to eradicate polio, develop cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization, and were tested in nuclear sites worldwide. HeLa cells have been immeasurably important to cancer research for decades. However, Lacks’ own family did not learn of her medical legacy until 20 years after her death when they were also unethically recruited into HeLa research. Despite her monumental contribution to science, her children and grandchildren were all reared in poverty and too often without health insurance.” In the words of Lacks’s youngest daughter, Deborah: “If our mother cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can’t afford to see no doctors?”

Lacks’ case has for years raised questions about racism and health and of course concerns about medical compensation and distributive justice for patients and families. Science, of course, continues to be shaped by the inequalities presented by race, class and gender, particularly the surveillance of certain types of bodies over others, and there are numerous other cases to demonstrate this. Incidentally, I also came across a recent TIME article ‘Why Racial Profiling Persists in Medical Research’ (August 2009) which investigates how race, a social construct, is interpreted in biological research and how it subsequently defines science.


Wanuri Kahiu

•January 27, 2010 • 9 Comments

If you have read my blog before then you must know that I love to highlight visionary African women. Visionary Kenyan women are even more exciting to feature. Wanuri Kahiu definitely falls into this category.

As an accomplished film maker and the director of Pumzi, Kenya’s first science-fiction film, she is setting the cinema scene abuzz with one of three African films showing at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (film and art enthusiasts also check out African Digital Art and Sci-Cultura for Pumzi and more). The 23 minute film:

…imagines a dystopian future 35 years after water wars have torn the world apart. East African survivors of the ecological devastation remain locked away in contained communities, but a young woman in possession of a germinating seed struggles against the governing council to bring the plant to Earth’s ruined surface.

As the Executive Director of Dada Productions, she has also been involved in writing and directing other productions. Her film From a Whisper, based on the 1998 Kenyan and Tanzanian bombings, won her 5 African Movie Academy Awards in 2009. In Ras Star, the story of a young Kenyan girl aspiring to be a musician, she was able to explore issues around women’s freedom and participation in African society.

Of her own work, she says:

I write and direct films that challenge and inspire the human spirit to re-unite and remember. I believe that the union of people and the integration of cultures through stories are beneficial to all.

Wanuri lives to tell to tell modern African stories with a fresh sense of style and meaning,” and we hope that she continues to have amazing opportunities to express and document Kenyan imagination, innovation, narratives and artistry for both local and international audiences. Her work is also featured at the (very cool) International Museum of Women.

Check out the Pumzi trailer here:

On Black Sisters’ Street

•July 6, 2012 • Leave a Comment


After coming across this book a few times on the shelves, I finally decided to pick up ‘On Black Sisters’ Street’ by Chika Unigwe, having read some good reviews. I’m glad I did.

In brief, it is the story of four different women who leave their African homes to pursue the riches of Europe in Antwerp’s red light district.

This was an excellent read. I loved the way Unigwe managed to tell the stories of each woman so colourfully and so vividly. This book was difficult to put down, it flowed from one page to the next. I particularly loved her deliberate and eloquent use of pidgin throughout the book, as illustrated by Dele, the sinister Lagos pimp, boasting of his girls:

“All my gals, I treat good. I dey tell dem before dem comot…Me I be good man. I just try to help poor gals…I get three lined up. Dem full for front, full for back. I swear, dem go drive oyibo mad. Na beauty queen statistics dem get. You sabi as my gals dey dey nah, no gorrilas I dey supply. Na beauty queens. Gals wey carry double Jennifer Lopez nyash.”

Even though ‘On Black Sisters’ Street’ focuses on a very sensitive and unsettling theme, Unigwe is able to depict a highly nuanced narrative of each character, employing humor as she explores the realities and complexities of sex trafficking. A must-read for all lovers of contemporary African writing!

Note: This post was originally published on my tumblr site


•January 25, 2010 • 2 Comments
In the spirit of re-acquainting myself with the blogosphere in 2010 (it’s been a while) … I introduce Nneka, one of my absolute favorite discoveries of 2009!

Born Nneka Egbuna in Warri, the capital city of Delta State, Nigeria, she is a 28 year old Afro-German, “musician-activist” who’s spent her life living between Nigeria and Germany. She’s not only a true Afropolitan, but a student of anthropology 🙂 She holds a degree in anthropology from Hamburg University.

Her first full album Victim of Truth (2005) was “the year’s most criminally overlooked” according to the UK’s The Sunday Times who add that “‘Victim of Truth’ is as good as The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. If you liked that, buy this.”

Her second album No Longer at Ease (2008), who’s title is borrowed from Chinua Achebe’s novel of the same name, was equally soulful and acclaimed. In both albums, Nneka addresses social ills including corruption, capitalism, poverty, and war, and also documents her personal experience of living in Western Europe as a black woman. Her music is not only extremely relevant but reflective and emotional — it reveals “the engagement of a highly developed mind.”

If you like rich, conscious, contemporary Afrobeats, then you must check out Nneka. She is currently breaking into the US music scene and “Africanizing America” in her words. Her latest album Concrete Jungle drops in February 2010.

Check out one of my top-picks, Nneka’s ‘Africans.’

Face to Face with Chimamanda

•June 9, 2009 • 10 Comments

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of spending an hour with acclaimed Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie while she was in Melbourne. She was en route from the 2009 Sydney Writer’s Festival where she gave the opening address. I was absolutely thrilled to attend a free book-reading event she was hosting to promote her new short-story collection titled The Thing Around Your Neck. Chimamanda is my favourite contemporary African novelist; if you have not yet picked up Half of a Yellow Sun, you are missing out on a masterpiece of African literature!

Much to my surprise, the venue was packed though there were only about two Africans in the room which made me question whether the event received any publicity within the African community here or whether us diasporans were reading at all. She read from “The Shivering” which is featured in her new collection of stories about migrating from Nigeria to America (You can watch the reading from one of her Sydney events here). Question and answer time was interesting as it appeared that a few people in the room were writers themselves. Chimamanda was very down to earth; there were lots of laughs as she boasted about Nigeria being the best African country as a matter of fact and not Nigerian arrogance.

When I commented on her amazing ability to convey such colourful, rich descriptions of Nigerian food and daily life in Half of a Yellow Sun, and asked how she teaches her students to write creatively, her response was that she can only teach a student to be true to themselves and to “read like a writer” so as to perfect the technical aspects that are fundamental to good creative work. It was particularly nice to hear her speak about the writing and publishing process, like deciding on the title of the new book (a title she was rather unhappy with at first), frantic conversations with her editor, and trying hard to maintain the integrity of short stories she wrote 5 years ago by leaving them unchanged for the book (even though she often finds herself cringing at some today). She also mentioned that a feature film based on Half of a Yellow Sun is forthcoming, though she will not be involved in any aspect of the movie production. She did say that she expects the story will remain true to the original version as the same production team that brought The Last King of Scotland to the big screen will be producing this film.

Chimamanda is an extremely gifted story-teller who has accomplished a great deal at a young age, and she is well on her way to becoming one of the most distinguished African writers of our time. I particularly admire the fact that her stories focus on the complex, dynamic as well as positive livelihoods of people from the continent, and that she reserves a special place for African womanhood in her narratives.

Adichie describes herself as a very happy feminist. Strong women drive many of the stories in her books. She quietly supports women writers (Marie-Elena John, the Antiguan author of Unburnable, is a favourite) and backs women in politics in any country. But she stresses the word “happy,” she says, because to her being a feminist is about more than outrage; it is about being a woman who likes and stands up for other women. –Sydney Morning Herald

I really enjoyed meeting Chimamanda. I haven’t yet started reading my autographed (gasp!) copy of The Thing Around Your Neck but I am looking forward to devouring it very soon 🙂

Half of a Yellow SunPurple HibiscusThe Thing Around Your Neck

No Sex Please

•May 14, 2009 • 2 Comments

No SexI have been trying to summarise my thoughts on the recent political sex strike in Kenya ever since it began. On April 29th, a consortium of women’s groups, led by the Women’s Development Organisation launched a 7 day sex ban to protest poor leadership, chaos and disunity in the government. As the BBC reported, the nation’s political disputes had been “moved to the nation’s bedrooms.”

It was bold. It was radical. It was even laughable. Bringing the word ‘sex’ into public discourse, as taboo as it remains in Kenyan society, was shocking. Linking it to politics was even more provocative. However, it seemed to me that these women were negating some important aspects of the feminist agenda that they advocate by using a strategy which reinforced patriarchal ideas about male/female sex roles.

But I was well-aware that my analysis was a very simplistic one, and it has taken me some time to even write about it. After all, I knew nothing about the concept of witholding sex for political reasons or the history of ‘sex strikes’ per se. I discovered that this was not the first time public sexual protest had been enacted anywhere in the world. Apparently the ancient Greeks did it, women in Colombia did the same a few years ago, and Liberian women also initiated a ‘successful’ sex protest as one of their strategies for ending the Liberian civil war. Clearly sexual boycotts were not a new or revolutionary thing. In fact women in Ekiti State, Nigeria were holding a half-naked strike to protest the electoral process just a day after the Kenyan ban began. However, I was really interested in hearing what fellow Kenyans thought of the ban, and it was only a matter of days before the blogs and magazines were abuzz with the story.

All political issues aside, the sex strike highlighted some real concerns about the state of women in Kenya:

* Did we have to resort to a sex-strike for women’s voices to be heard? Why did we have to resort to using sex as a political bargaining chip? What are the alternatives?

* According to a local newspaper, in at least one province in southwestern Kenya, women reported being beaten by their husbands for participating in the protest. This is not shocking, but it is disturbing. It is disturbing that women who chose to take political action for the sake of their country were abused for doing so.

* This sexual divide is the same divide that maintains other problems (and they are not exclusive to our country). Not surprisingly, polygamy is still legal in Kenya, women continue to be disproportionately infected with HIV within marriage, and women still face violence for not cooperating as their husbands wish.

*Lastly, the overwhelming presumption that on average (Kenyan) women do not enjoy sex (unless they are sex workers who are making a living), therefore this was not in any way a sacrifice for them and were only using this strategy to punish men. This is a view I dispute completely. I’m afraid some women also took the protest too literally, you can read one response here.

We are obviously a long way from having women’s voices truly valued and respected in the political arena, and even farther away from having the same in our homes. When it is okay for a man to beat his wife for not fulfilling her sexual ‘duties’ (and when we still think of sex as a woman’s obligation), then we have a long way to go in terms of making gender equity and human rights priority issues for all Kenyans. Clearly, the cause for the strike was completely lost one on man who decided to sue the activists for “anxiety and stress” because he was restricted from enjoying his “conjugal rights” for 7 days.

Whether or not the strike was a ‘success’ or a ‘failure’ is not a judgement I am willing to make. I believe those who have tried to assess it that way are missing the point. The point was to create dialogue about the political problems facing the nation, unfortunately this was totally overshadowed by the strategy. However, these women were able to achieve one thing and that was to challenge the status quo and shed light on the gender inequalities that go along with our political problems. In addition, I think Mutahi Ngunyi’s op ed nailed some of the most important outcomes of the strike: it succeeded in creating a simple but powerful movement while unifying women across the tribal divide, and I think the strategy can be applauded for those reasons. Whether or not it is one which can or should be used again is a question that is open for much debate.

But I must ask: What about the women who have contributed to the political problems the nation faces? Are they innocent? Were they striking? Or is it only our men who are responsible for the country’s problems? I suspect not.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell A documentary on the Liberian women’s grassroots activism which succeeded in ending the nation’s civil war. The women used peaceful protest and also included a sex boycott.


More articles of interest:

Kenyan Women on a Sex Strike: Why They Did It (with my comments)

Anti-Sex Protest Diatribe by Gitau Warigi (Must read)

Mutahi Ngunyi Op Ed: Letter to the Men of Kenya

The Female Body and Political Protest

Nigeria: When Women Rage with the Pudenda and the Paps

Women’s Aggressive Use of Genital Power in Africa

The New Rape

•April 16, 2009 • 5 Comments

“Corrective” rape: the use of sexual assault to “cure” lesbians in South Africa.

war-on-womenThis is the latest wave of gender-based violence and human rights violations against a particularly marginalized group of women on the continent. According to Kerry Frizzelle (The Guardian), it is also an example of “double-discrimination” against women who also happen to be lesbian, as well as an event which allows the rapist to claim a woman’s ‘abnormal’ sexual orientation to legitimize the act of rape.

A report titled “Hate Crimes: The Rise of Corrective Rape in South Africa” was recently released by the NGO Action Aid in conjunction with the South African Human Rights Commission. The report shows that “corrective” rape is quickly establishing itself as the most brutal form of attack against lesbian women in the country but more importantly, it “condemns the culture of impunity around these crimes, which it says are going unrecognised by the state and unpunished by the legal system.”

In South Africa, no woman is safe from violence. The country’s war against its women continues unabated, with an estimated 500,000 rapes, hundreds of murders and countless beatings inflicted every year. For every 25 men accused of rape in South Africa, 24 walk free.

This shameful record has resulted in an increasingly brutal and oppressive culture of male violence, in which women are forced to conform or suffer the consequences.

As part of this oppression, the country is now witnessing a backlash of crimes targeted specifically at lesbian women, who are perceived as representing a direct threat to a male-dominated society.

… Support groups say that rape is fast becoming the most widespread hate crime targeted against gay women in townships across South Africa. One lesbian and gay support group says it is dealing with 10 new cases of lesbian women being targeted for “corrective” rape every week in Cape Town alone.

Action Aid

It is under this shameful culture of intolerance coupled with that of pervasive male violence that lesbian women have suffered, many assaulted and even brutally murdered as was lesbian football player Eudy Simelane in April 2008. In the short video titled “Why we rape lesbians: They are not normal like us,” survivors of sexual violence speak out on their experiences of “corrective” assaults, while others provide their views on the role of violence in “straightening” out gay women.

For more discussion on LGBTI issues in Africa, please visit Blacklooks.