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Violence and the Body: Somatic Expressions of Trauma and Vulnerability during War

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Abstract

Drawing on ethnographic research conducted along the Sierra Leone–Guinea border during wartime, this article explores the contested nature of the body and bodily illness during times of spectacular political violence. For both perpetrators and survivors of conflict, the body and bodily illness became tools over which each sought to control definitions of Self and identity. Finally, the article considers emic interpretations and contested meanings of the local illness hypertension, or haypatɛnsi, that occurred among the displaced. I document how discussions of haypatɛnsi allowed horrific subjective experiences to become mediated, enabling conflict survivors to understand and express the pain of their trauma and vulnerability, and begin recourse toward reestablishing order and control over their lives. Even these discussions of illness, however, involved competition over control of meanings and prescriptive models with medical practitioners. Haypatɛnsi thus reveals how lived, traumatic experiences and their cultural representations within illness are linked.

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