The concept of flow in Rwandan popular medicine

Soc Sci Med. 1988;27(12):1343-8. doi: 10.1016/0277-9536(88)90199-2.


This paper examines Rwandan popular concepts of health and physiology focusing upon notions which concern the bodily secretions: blood, saliva, semen, and maternal milk. Through the analysis of a female patient's description of an illness caused by "poisoning', the author demonstrates that Rwandan notions of individual health, social order, and the cosmos manifest the principle of homology. Liquid substances participate in several important processes in Rwandan social life, including those of production, exchange, and reproduction. Pathology arises where the flow of liquids becomes perturbed, hence a contrast is drawn between "flow' and "anomic flow'. Ritually controlling "flow' was once the responsibility of the Rwandan divine king (mwami). Today, although Rwanda is no longer a monarchy, symbolic constructs related to the "flow/anomic flow' dialectic continue to permeate Rwandan popular medicine and this is evinced in the discourse of patients and healers. In this particular instance, the patient uses this symbolic model to express feelings of malaise which run the gamut from "micro' level phenomena--herself and her household--to "macro' level phenomena--political strife at the national level.

MeSH terms

  • Anthropology, Cultural*
  • Body Fluids*
  • Humans
  • Medicine, Traditional*
  • Rwanda
  • Social Control, Informal
  • Symbolism*
  • Taboo