Distraction Free Reading

Crackles of Science and other Signs of the Unseen in East Africa

After hearing that several villagers stored bags full of radioactive sand inside their family houses, the nuclear scientist explained that he went into a man’s home with a Geiger Counter. Moving through the house, closer to the bag of sand, he recounted how changes in the quality of the sound corresponded to an increasing presence of radiation. He knew that the people in this village, which is located close to Tanzania’s first uranium mine, kept the bags in their homes because they did not want to give away something that they knew was valuable, like gold or the gemstones mined in the area. He explained they didn’t realize keeping the bags in their homes was not a good idea, though he never said why. The sound emitted by the radiation detector voiced a difference that couldn’t be seen by the human eye: it was a moment when the normally unseen, unheard, odorless, and tasteless forces of ionizing radiation were made apparent.

How might visual and auditory tools provide a means of materializing the undetectable? The Tanzanian scientist shared this story with me during our preliminary discussions about my interest in conducting ethnographic research with the state-run agency where he works: the Tanzanian Atomic Energy Commission (TAEC). Since its establishment in 2003, TAEC became a regional hub for nuclear science, completing a project with the European Union to strengthen capacity with new equipment and training. After a tour of the dosimetry and calibration laboratory [1], the scientist and I discussed how public education about radiation fits within the larger umbrella of the Commission’s remit. He explained how the scientists promote the understanding of radiation in Tanzania, and that they are always looking to improve the effectiveness of their outreach. I asked whether he thought that photography, video, and sound might be useful to study the outreach work by the scientists. From behind his desk, he thought for a minute, and agreed. He then launched into the story of the Geiger Counter as an example of how sound plays a key role in his efforts to make “visible” the invisible forces of ionizing radiation.

The story of the radioactive bags of sand was so compelling to me because I had heard the story before. Since starting research in 2014 in the villages closest to Tanzania’s first uranium mine, several people told me versions of this story. The core plot stayed the same: that people hid bags of radioactive sand in their houses. But in each iteration, some of the details changed. Local civil society groups used this story to highlight how the villagers in the area were desperate to glean benefits from the planned commercial uranium mine but remained ignorant of the possible health consequences of living in close proximity with a source of radiation. Village leaders who recounted the story shook their heads, as if they were exasperated about how little their neighbors knew about the way the commercial extraction project would work, or perhaps a bit irritated (or impressed?) that their constituents had found yet another way to subvert local hierarchies of power. No one else who told me this story mentioned the Geiger Counter. Was it less meaningful to them? Was it omitted because it had an unfamiliar name? Was the crackle of the detector less compelling a translation than the scientist thought? What if I had been there, in the house recording the exchange? Would the versions of the story be more similar? Or even more different?

Same Soils, New Sounds?

Tanzania officially opened its first uranium mine in 2015, but the mining company indefinitely delayed commercial extraction after the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan, and the resulting drop in the global price of uranium (Nickel 2016). People in the area around the Tanzanian mine overwhelmingly support the project and are eager for the jobs and associated infrastructure they assume will come with the industrial project (paved roads, piped water, and electricity, among others). They’ve been told by mining company representatives that the sandy soils at the mining site are safe to touch, although the mining company has also been careful to explain that there are risks involved in uranium mining. These seemingly contrasting statements, in connection with the story of the Geiger Counter and the ongoing scientific debate about the health impacts of long-term low dose radiation (Goldstein and Stawkowski 2015), suggest we should not mistake the villagers for being somehow backward or ignorant.

Image of Geiger counter and monitor

Radiation Jukebox

I first met this nuclear scientist several years before he told me this story, when he visited the mine as part of an annual audit of domestic sources of ionizing radiation. [2] My doctoral research focused on the evolution of natural resource management in the area around the mine, and he and I discussed the role of his agency in uranium mining regulation. After meeting him, I had new questions about how people come to understand uranium and its radioactive properties. What do people understand uranium to be? How is this understanding informed by domestic sources of information? How do people make sense of sometimes conflicting information about the safety of uranium-laden soils?

Anthropologists have studied workers at nuclear power and weapons plants (Masco 2004; Gusterson 1996) and also the preoccupation with nuclear testing, disaster, and their aftermaths (Petryna 2002; Johnston 2007). Significant work historicizing uranium mining in Canada and the US (Van Wyck 2010; Brugge and Goble 2002) and US and European nuclear histories contrast with the fearful portrayals of non-western countries (Gusterson 1999) in terms of their roles in the nuclear world. Recent work focusing on citizen science begins to add nuance to making sense of the gendered, political constraints in post-Fukushima Japan (Kimura 2016).

Despite the marginalization of Africa from mainstream nuclear history, the continent is key to the economic and geopolitical history of the nuclear world. Historians have begun to reveal the role of Africa in nuclear history (Hecht 2012), identifying that uranium from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) fueled the first, devastating atomic weapons in 1945. Commercial uranium mining in Africa took place throughout the 20th century and production continues today. South Africa produced commercial nuclear power since the 1980s and created and disassembled a nuclear weapons arsenal by the end of apartheid in 1991. The false claims of illicit “African uranium” were used as pretext for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, confirming that sub-Saharan Africa remains key to understanding the nuclear world in the 21st century (Hecht 2009). Nuclear research reactors can be found across the continent, and energy-hungry African countries are now looking to nuclear power as prestige projects and (possibly) carbon-neutral energy sources, even as Europe and the US turn away from nuclear power production.

More than thirty years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and nine years after Fukushima, we have to look no further than our televisions to relive disaster, reflect on fears of nuclearity, and acknowledge the desire to make sense of life in this nuclear world. While recognizing fears of global disaster, we can also attend to the more routine interactions with radioactive material taking place in hospitals using radiation in imaging (i.e. X-rays) and treatment (i.e. radiation therapy), in scientific research capacities, and in ordinary life near uranium mines. We know very little about these more mundane interactions with nuclear material taking place across sub-Saharan Africa. Without an appreciation for these more mundane interactions between Africans and nuclear material, we risk perpetuating (mis)understandings of the nuclear world, including fearful (and false) claims of African uranium fueling weapons programs of “rogue states.”

Corridor of Chernobyl aftermath

Chernobyl aftermath (pixabay.com)

Making Sense of Sounds

Returning to the Tanzanian nuclear scientist and his visits to the villages closest to the mine, what can we learn from the crackles of the Geiger Counter in the story? We have a local scientist and bureaucrat, a highly trained official who is part of an international network of nuclear scientists. He acts as a decoder of science, translating English and Latin terms into Kiswahili, which might then be translated into the local language for elderly people in the room. He also translates across knowledge barriers, from the nuclear physics laboratory to citizens who often do not have secondary school science education. These verbal efforts provide the basis for understanding the radioactive decay processes taking place in their homes. In using the Geiger Counter, he also translates the invisible into the visible, when the dosage rate appears on the digital screen. He creates evidence of the silent forces of low-level ionizing radiation with the sound of the detector. This work should not be reified into the importation of a Western instrument into Tanzania. Translations, even of science, are never neutral. Also, we can see how the scientist chooses and changes the Geiger Counter as a technology. In doing so, the scientist shapes his world through his study of it.

The crackling emitted by a Geiger counter may be evocative in a western world where the depiction of nuclear disaster is never too far, reflecting a preoccupation (or familiarity?) with nuclear disasters. But what if you’ve never seen one of the many TV shows or movies that show Geiger Counters? What if you’ve never heard the crackling? How do you know what to make of that sound? [3] How does anyone link the crackling of the Geiger Counter to the unseen forces of radiation? To the nuclear energy regulators in Tanzania, serving at the interface between the scientific ways of knowing these forces and the citizenry, the Geiger Counter appeared as a key element in the story of villagers stashing radioactive sand in their homes. Perhaps some of the ways these technocrats make atomic forces visible, or audible, can further our understanding of the plurality of ways of knowing (our bodies and our environments) in this nuclear world.

It’s still not clear why the Geiger Counter did not appear in any of the other iterations of the story, but that may be because the translation had already taken place. Maybe I only heard the stories because the presence of the scientist and the crackle of the Geiger Counter served as a kind of spark, making the interaction worthy of chain reaction re-tellings. The takeaway from the story, that bags of uranium-laden sand should not be kept in the home, came through in all the versions. Yet, this lies uneasily with the inconsistent messaging from the mining company, whose representatives say both that the soil is safe to hold in your bare hand, and that there are risks involved in uranium mining. For the scientist, the Geiger Counter served as a tool to make radiation seen and heard. However, the knowledge and the warning about the hidden properties of the sand is implied in the story, even without the sound of radioactivity or the presence of a scientist operating a radiation detector. While the evidence-making tools and practices of the Tanzanian nuclear scientists might be a setting for future research about (nuclear) science and ontological practices in sub-Saharan Africa, it seems that the crackling of a machine might only tell part of the story of how radiation (and risk) becomes sense-able to ordinary people.


[1] The dosimetry laboratory receives and analyses all radiation tracking badges and inspects the calibration and licensing of equipment that emit radiation.

[2] Dr. Don Lincoln from Fermilab gives an accessible explanation of the different types of radiation.

[3] Very briefly, a speaker connected to a tube crackles when sub-atomic particles decaying during ionizing radiation create a brief electrical current surge which moves the speaker components. Here’s a lay explanation.


Brugge, Doug, and Rob Goble. 2002. “The History of Uranium and the Navajo People; Public Health Then and Now.” American Journal of Public Health 92 (9): 1410–19.

Goldstein, Donna M., and Magdalena E. Stawkowski. 2015. “James V. Neel and Yuri E. Dubrova: Cold War Debates and the Genetic Effects of Low-Dose Radiation.” Journal of the History of Biology 48: 67–98.

Gusterson, Hugh. 1996. Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War. Berkeley; London: University of California Press.

———. 1999. “Nuclear Weapons and the Other in the Western Imagination.” Cultural Anthropology 14 (1): 111–43.

Hecht, Gabrielle. 2009. “The Power of Nuclear Things.” Technology and Culture 51 (1): 1–30.

———. 2012. Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Johnston, Barbara Rose, ed. 2007. Half-Lives and Half-Truths: Confronting the Radioactive Legacies of the Cold War. School for Advanced Research Resident Scholar Series. Santa Fe, NM: School for Advanced Research Press.

Kimura, Aya Hirata. 2016. “Radiation Brain Moms and Citizen Scientists.” Radiation Brain Moms and Citizen Scientists.

Masco, Joseph. 2004. “Nuclear Technoaesthetics: Sensory Politics from Trinity to the Virtual Bomb in Los Alamos.” American Ethnologist 31 (3): 349–73.

Nickel, Rod. 2016. “Russia’s Uranium One Raising Output, Holding off on New Mine.” Reuters, March 8, 2016. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mining-pdac-uraniumone-idUSKCN0WA26L.

Petryna, Adriana. 2002. Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl. In-Formation Series Y. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Wyck, Peter C. Van. 2010. The Highway of the Atom. Montreal and Ithaca: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

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