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Ironies of Laboratory Work during Ghana's Second Age of Optimism

By Damien Droney

Cite As:
Droney, Damien. 2014. “Ironies of Laboratory Work during Ghana’s Second Age of Optimism.” Cultural Anthropology 29, no. 2: 363–384.


While Ghana is touted as an African success story, the young employees of a large herbal medicine research center in Ghana make sardonic and cynical remarks about the state of science in contemporary Africa. They decry the improvisation that characterizes doing science on the continent, point out what is lacking from their laboratories, and mock the ways in which their work appears embarrassingly peculiar. They claim that their labs are “not modern” and ironically refer to dissatisfying aspects of their work as “African science,” a second-rate version of science done elsewhere. This is what Achille Mbembe has called negative interpretation, where social life is understood primarily in the ways in which it differs from an assumed Western standard. These jokes reference an earlier period in Ghanaian history, when African science formed part of the project of postcolonial nation building. Scientists of the independence period constructed the scientific and medical infrastructure of Ghana to both provide for the needs of its people and to represent the status of modern Africa to the world. The apparently incongruous relationship between the cynicism of these jokes and the strain of Afro-optimism that has recently surrounded Ghana indicates a sustained shift in the identity politics of African professionals since independence. Their jokes signal their attempts at disentangling their identities from the project of African modernity, and at positioning themselves as scientists working in the context of Ghana.


irony; humor; modernity; identity; Africa; postcolonialism