blog 17 Nov 2017
– Laurie Denyer Willis – University of Cambridge
Co-authors: – Susan Nayiga –

How are antibiotics a kind of infrastructure that enable livelihoods in landscapes of scarcity and uncertainty?

We’ve wound our way through Kampala towards the southern suburb of Wakiso to visit a chicken farm run by Sarah, a former primary school teacher, in the back of her house. Keeping chickens in your backyard wouldn’t be so remarkable in an East African city, except this is neither a small-holder, nor a large commercial, operation. Rather, this is something in between. Sarah keeps over 1000 chickens, almost an even mix of layers and broilers, in four large double-story pens pieced together with rough boards, all just located in her back garden. Sarah has been doing this work for over 20 years. At first it was a way to supplement her income as a teacher, but now it’s a full-time job that supports her extended family, puts four students through university, and has even allowed her to afford a once unimaginable trip to Mecca. She employs two young women to assist her in keeping the pens tidy and in collecting eggs, but the care of the chickens is all done by her.

Sarah is carefully attuned to her chickens’ health, monitoring their coughs, sneezes, excrement, even any drooping feathers. As we walk amidst the birds, she points out one chicken to us in a pen of hundreds that she is currently treating for an unnamed sickness, and tells us about various home remedies and her use of antibiotics to tend to it and other sick birds. When we inquire where she’s learned all she knows about poultry keeping, she is clear that it is a matter of experience, of really knowing the birds, and of carefully paying attention to their needs. She laments, for example, that she doesn’t have space for her own garden, and has to collect nearly-rotten fruit from the markets to supplement the home-made feed she makes and sells. Fresh herbs from the garden would be best, she tells us, but she is confident in the feed she now mixes herself. It is a special recipe put together after years of observing what hens need most to thrive, invented after years of paying for over-priced commercial feeds with unknown ingredients. She uses antibiotics on individual sick chickens, she tells us, rather than dosing them pre-emptively. Since veterinary outreach services are so limited, she explains, she has had to learn everything via experience and through costly piece-meal agricultural courses over the years, including selective antibiotic dosing, vaccinating chicks, beak trimming, and which antibiotics to include in their feed for optimal growth and health.

Photo by author
Wakiso District, Uganda

This size of a poultry farm is a somewhat new addition to the farming landscape in Wakiso. As the suburbs shift in character, related to new urbanizing patterns, the rising cost of housing in the centre, young urban dwellers’ desire for agricultural investments near the city, and the emergence of new suburban hubs, farming trends are changing along with it, allowing new medium-sized operations to flourish. All of this is linked, of course, to the availability of antibiotics too, which potentially lessens the risk of making the investment into larger flocks.

Our current research project in Wakiso takes all of this as its focus. We are interested in the dynamics of suburban farming and antibiotic use, carefully considering how antibiotics are part of the infrastructure (Chandler 2018) that undergirds complex urban livelihoods in landscapes of scarcity and uncertainty. How are antibiotics used to make everyday life possible? How is experience made into knowledge? How do antibiotics figure as a kind of care – for both sick animals and the families that are supported through their keeping? What new antibiotic markets are emerging to support these arrangements?

Works Cited:

Chandler, Clare. Forthcoming 2018. ‘Antimicrobial Infrastructures: Addressing Resistance as a Problem of Connectedness’ . Antibiosis.