Q&A With Donna A. Patterson: Pharmacy in Senegal

photo of a Senegal pharmacy

Patterson, a historian of African medicine at Wellesley College, explores the important role of pharmacies in Senegal in her book, Pharmacy in Senegal: Gender, Healing, and Entrepreneurship, and she graciously agreed to help us kick off our discussion with a Q&A about her book. Please feel free to add your own comments and questions below. This comment stream will be open for a 2-week period. Interview by Dayna Kerecman Myers, GHN's associate editor

How did you hit upon the idea of writing about the unique place of pharmacies in Senegal; had you spent a lot of time there?
Yes, my relationship to Senegal extends back to the 1990s. I had already spent 2 summers in Senegal and made a third visit by the time I started doing work on pharmacists. I came to study pharmacists via questions of entrepreneurship. Originally, I focused primarily on women pharmacists but the book examines pharmacy ownership more broadly.

Why do you think there are so many more pharmacies in Senegal than in other francophone West African countries?
The fact that medical and pharmacy instruction was established very early in Senegal likely helped. In the history of the medical professions in sub-Saharan Africa, it is one of the first. Senegalese pharmacists would come to make pharmacy practice their own and carve a niche in the biomedical sector. This tradition continued throughout the colonial period into the postcolonial period and continues to expand into the 21st century.

You open your book with this great quote from Louis Pasteur: “Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world.” In that spirit, what could pharmacies in developed countries learn from Senegal’s pharmacies?
In Senegal, pharmacies play a critical role as first-line intermediaries to other types of biomedical care. Someone who is ill in Senegal is more likely to visit a pharmacy before (if ever) visiting a doctor, clinic, hospital, which is often different than what we currently find in the United States for instance. Historically as my research in New Orleans shows and we can find parallels elsewhere, pharmacies played a similar function in the US. Now though the chains dominate and pharmacy practice has changed. In Senegal there are no chains and pharmacies are owner-operated. Only those trained in pharmacy can open pharmacies in Senegal. A number of pharmacies in Senegal become significant features in certain neighborhoods and communities.

On another note, I think that we cannot forget that traditional healing plays a big role in Senegal. Pharmacists are very aware that customers may use different forms of healing to treat the same illness. So different ideas about "science" and "healing" exist in Senegal and the pharmacists only practice one form.

What surprised you most in your research?
Some of the most significant surprises that I encountered in Senegal were political (local and global) and not research related. I was in Senegal during the presidential elections of 2000 when Abdoulaye Wade defeated Abdou Diouf and ushered the first political party change in 40 years. I was living in Senegal on September 11, 2001. Also, I spent summer 2011 in Senegal, when Senegal had some of its most heated social protests to date. I used to spend a great deal of time in Senegal and I watched these and other major events unfold while living there.

You explain the rise of the illicit pharmaceutical trade in Senegal—and how it eats away at the earnings of licensed pharmacists while the government looks the other way. What is the state of government oversight of the industry, and have there been any injuries or deaths that have resulted in negative publicity for illicit pharmaceuticals?
Yes, the government has historically been uneven in its policies surrounding this issue but the state has recently become more consistent in its policy regarding unregulated drug sales. In the past year alone, the state has earmarked more human and economic resources than I've ever witnessed. This has resulted in arrests and jail for dozens associated with Senegal's parallel pharmaceutical market. At the same time, the industry is still quite well entrenched. I spent a few weeks in Senegal in April and pharmacists still cite illicit pharmaceutical trafficking as one of their biggest challenges. It will be interesting to see if the government's efforts remain consistent.

Near the end of your book, you mention that your next book will focus on drug trafficking. Do you know yet what countries you’ll focus on?
Yes, I am focusing primarily on Senegal and Ethiopia and to a lesser degree on Cape Verde and Djibouti. I have made multiple research related trips to Senegal and Ethiopia and one trip to Cape Verde and have started to write the book. It is a bit challenging to travel to Djibouti at the moment so it may not figure as prominently in the final book manuscript. 

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