By Jack Payne-Cook
If I was asked by someone unfamiliar with anthropology to provide an example of the contemporary relevance of the discipline, I would consider offering Alex M. Nading’s “Mosquito Trails: Ecology, Health, and the Politics of Entanglement” as such an example. Written on the back of several years of fieldwork in Ciudad Sandino, a small city in Nicaragua north of the country’s capital Managua, the book provides some exceptionally prescient messages in the context of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the broader climate crisis in which new infectious diseases are emerging (p. 198), and the intersection of epidemiological issues with those of geopolitics, ecology and economics.
In essence, Mosquito Trails is an ethnography of community health workers (brigadistas) and city refuse workers in Nicaragua, and their interconnection with dengue fever (hereafter dengue) in the region. Although their work is not so much the book’s object of study, it provides an entry point into a broader economic, political, and ecological analysis of dengue as an “entangled” phenomenon; one contingent on both local and international processes taking place within those aforementioned categories (p. 11). Using a methodological approach based predominantly on extensive participant observation and loosely structured and free-flowing interviews (pp. 18-19), Nading’s book maps the complexity of the Nicaraguan dengue epidemic, and its relationship to historical, political, cultural, and ecological processes. At the same time, it problematises global approaches to disease control and emphasises the need to re-ground such approaches within a framework of political ecology. These are ambitious aims, but ones that he largely succeeds in achieving. However, with a nuance appropriate to the book’s analytical approach, this breadth of discourse is both the ethnography’s greatest virtue and the source of its minor shortcomings.
However, it is in this desire to explore and describe the complex entanglement of dengue that a minor criticism of the book could be lodged: at times, through the creativity and complexity of both his writing style and wide-ranging analytical approach, he makes connections that perhaps aren’t there. For example, his attempt to draw parallels between evangelical Christianity in Nicaragua and dengue isn’t always wholly convincing. Elaborating on some biological mechanisms of dengue infection, in which distinct versions (serotypes) of the virus cause exacerbated infection due to the immune system treating them equally, he describes the body as “sinning” in its “complacency, treating one dengue serotype as identical to the next” (p. 95). Whilst most of the relationships between moral and religious experiences in Nicaragua and dengue that he outlines make sense, this particular one feels like somewhat of a narrative leap; a metaphorisation that is more about furnishing his point than it is about a sociocultural reality.
The quality, range, and skill of Nading’s analysis, as well as the inferred depth of his fieldwork, is impressive. Dividing his writing over three distinct sections – Infrastructure, Bodies, and Knowledge – he manages to deftly tie together diverse analytical categories in his search to describe the entanglement of dengue, exploring themes of kinship (pp. 63 -4), local economics (pp. 70-74), religion (pp. 90-98), the house as “node of exchange” (pp. 99-103), bodily subjectivities and pleasure (pp. 115 – 118), global health protocols and epidemiological discourse (pp. 147-161), and their respective roles in the management of the disease. It is apparent that his creative, attentive and flexible methodology – flowing between the various places and people involved in dengue management in Ciudad Sandino – is what allows him to make these connections: to see how “people, blood, resources, waste, money, and mosquitoes (…) actively entangled with each other” on the ground (p. 19).
Similarly, Mosquito Trails’ ambitious scope tends to obscure the richness of ethnographic detail. Nading focuses on historicising the racialised, classed and gendered nature of dengue exposure and management, but frequently offers only fleeting examples of these experiences. For example, it is not until over halfway through the book that Nading introduces an in-depth interview with a brigadista, Xochitl, who describes her depression resulting from the weight of her responsibility as a brigadista, mother and carer, and her experience of economic precarity within those intersecting roles (p. 107). The interview grounds Nading’s undoubtedly skilful political analysis and deft feminist critique in a concrete example, and although his ethnography does paint a vivid image of the lives of brigadistas throughout the book, at times the ambition of his text seems to inhibit a more regularly extensive description of his fieldwork. From what was five years of evidently profound experience, it feels a shame not to have more of this in-depth ethnographic material in the final text, as in the instances where he does provide a more extensive description of his encounters in the field, his accompanying analysis takes on a greater significance.
However, these criticisms are indeed minor, and in many ways also represent genuine strengths of the text. Presenting a broad political, historical, ecological and cultural analysis of dengue in Nicaragua, Mosquito Trails provides a wonderful basis for potential further investigation along more specific lines of analysis in the future. Nading’s assertion that “people, pathogens, vectors, and their shared surroundings are always in the process of becoming, together” (p. 202) is an accessible, convincing, and skilfully theorised one. Read in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the central message of the book takes on greater prescience. In its emphasis on the entanglement of people, ecology, and viral diseases, Mosquito Trails provides a sharp and pertinent analysis of the interconnected factors of disease management, in turn challenging the restrictive view of infectious diseases as isolated phenomena that the human (read separate from nature) world must contend with. There is a great deal of both humility and potential in this view, and it is curious to imagine what the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic would have been if those in power had similarly recognised the profound entanglement of the issue. Nading writes that dengue permits people to perceive the “‘shared ontologies’ between themselves and nonhuman others” (p. 139): experiences that carry the potential to encourage ethics of community care and ecological responsibility. One only hopes that the global experience of the pandemic still has the capacity to encourage those values on a wider scale.
Jack Payne-Cook is a final year BA Anthropology with Spanish student at Sussex, with a background in youth mentoring and environmental education. His research interests include the anthropology of music and performance, landscape, and the senses.