Contrary science in a post-colonial institute: The Tanzanian toxicologist Vera Ngowi and the Tropical Pesticide Research Institute in Arusha



March 10, 2024

Eikei University

Paul Wenzel Geissler and Ruth Prince, University of Oslo

Nozomi Mizushima, Eikei University

This paper explores the intertwined biographies of a Tanzanian toxicologist and pesticide expert, Dr Vera Ngowi (*1955), and the Tanzanian Pesticide Research Institute, TPRI, a formerly world-leading laboratory, located in Arusha, Tanzania. While both stories begin in the time of colonial occupation, our emphasis here is on the post-colonial period, after British institutional leadership had been ceded (1972), after the institute established toxicology and environmental pollution as new concerns (1974), and after Dr Ngowi started to work with the TPRI (1976). This period allows us to see both the promise and aspiration of an African science of protection, and to understand the challenges it faces. Our paper will chart the professional and political development of the scientist, including her achievements and setbacks, the evolution of her global scholarly networks and growing activism, and her maturing civic commitment and civil disobedience. Her biography also reveals the effects, on science, of dwindling resources, and of institutional and political obstruction. We will also follow the step-wise decline of her institution, the TPRI – driven by austerity policies, trade liberalisation and legal-political interventions. This decline affected laboratories, funding, and legal frameworks, and thus the possibilities of toxicological science in Tanzania, resulting in the progressive “unprotection” (Tousignant) of Tanzanian publics from toxic health risks. We conclude that toxicology is a “contrary science”. It arises in opposition to the threat of biocidal harm. But it also tends to resist the given social and political-economic status quo and inherent forms of “slow violence” (Nixon) – against human and non-human life-forms. As a result, it often finds itself at loggerheads with established scientific hierarchies and institutions. While we propose that a science of harm and protection should be contrary in order to gain insight and take effect, the histories of Dr Ngowi and the TPRI also reveal a crucial tension: while meaningful science of the toxic is inevitably contrary, to flourish and bear fruit, such science relies on stable institutional structures – the very structures that it must keep pushing against.

Hiroshima Feminist Anthropology Reading Group
Eikei Feminism/Gender Studies Seminar Series
The University of Tokyo Indian Ocean Worlds Studies (TINDOWS)
The Anthropological Institute of Hiroshima (TAIHI)