The Role of Swiss Missionary Doctors in Decolonizing Health Care in Early Independent Lesotho

During the 20th century, Lesotho was not only referred to as the «Switzerland of Southern Africa» but was also destination for missionary doctors recruited in Switzerland on 2 to 4-year contracts and sent to the Southern African country to help staff some of its hospitals. These doctors brought with them their own understanding of medicine, shaped by their experiences in European universities, hospitals, and private clinics. In Lesotho they encountered familiar duties and responsibilities, but also unfamiliar visions of health and healing. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s it became clear to both the recruiting organizations and the local actors alike that effective health care depended on mutual understanding. To this end the doctors produced a wide variety of views on the Basotho understanding of health – sometimes together with their Basotho peers, but also disconnected from them. In letters, reports, and an ethnomedical study they tried to construct and communicate a deeper understanding of their surroundings and the work they were doing. This knowledge and its utilization, however, did not remain uncontested by the Basotho.

This paper focuses on the role the Swiss doctors played in the health system of Lesotho – as actors of decolonization, doctors, development workers and Christians – as well as the knowledge they produced. The views and positions of the doctors and the produced knowledge provide an original perspective on decolonization within a Southern African health system.