Revaluating genetic causation: Biology, economy, and kinship in Dakar, Senegal



In this article, I call for enlarging the conceptual terrain for viewing local biological expressions of illness. To date, a specific DNA sequence pattern, called “the Senegalese sickle cell haplotype,” has enjoyed extraordinary purchase on explanations for why Senegalese people may live with a “milder” form of sickle cell anemia when compared with other African populations. I argue, however, that “mild sickle cell” in Senegal emerges as a lived construct through a constitutive bond of biology, economy, and kinship. I show how patients’ enactments of biological difference are situated within larger informal economies and North–South donor priorities for health. In the absence of state funding to address patients’ needs, Senegalese sicklers create networks of care, health, and normalcy by drawing on Wolof idioms of “shared blood” that come to life in ways beyond metaphor. Their biosocial kinships result in therapeutic economies that restructure valuations of sickle cell despite serious medical constraints in this global context.