Africa’s Alternative To Western Medicine
We have all heard about the Traditional Healer, the Witchdoctor and the Shaman, but what do they really believe or practice on millions of African patients every day? Granted a few hours and some questions doesn’t give you a proper insight into what REALLY goes on, but at least I have scratched the surface a little, which is one of my aims whilst being here in Africa and especially in West Africa where the trend for alternative medicine is rife.
It seems that each Traditional Healer has a slightly different belief of what they preach, but quite often these are the initial choices for someone who is unwell over a visit to a hospital. Many people especially in the North of Ghana still have traditional beliefs when it comes to faith, so it’s really not that surprising that this is their first choice. They don’t understand Western medical practices and are rarely explained by a doctor about what is going on, so who can blame them for going to something they know and actually believe in? And in part we know that the Chinese and tribes deep in the amazon have successfully used plants that grow around them for centuries to cure ailments. Surely sometimes these weird rituals and herbal medicines must in fact work or people by now would have lost faith. My theory is that the human mind is such a powerful tool for healing that purely believing you will become well again in many of the cases may actually heal a lot of people’s problems.
What did I mean about different beliefs these Traditional Healers have? Well of the two I met, one had inherited his powers from his father and believed that indeed his children would also follow on after he was gone. The other described a troubled childhood with mental problems and problems with substance abuse. His elders had taken him to the local traditional consultants and it was explained that the reason for this was in fact that he was meant to be a traditional healer. He also believed that if one of his children showed powers then one day they would be Traditional Healers, but this was up to the spirits and had nothing to do with inheriting the gift.
What I didn’t expect was that these two Traditional Healers lived less than 500 metres from one another. When asked how people choose between them, the answer was, “whoever shows the most spiritual power.” So this must come down to word of mouth about who has been healed and ultimately I’m sure about the friendship circles people are affiliated with due to clan history.
Both used tree roots, bark and leaves that were boiled and then given to patients to drink and wash their bodies with. Alongside this the Healers continued their rituals and calling of the spirits. One Healer explained that when he called on the spirits he saw what he described as “dwarfs”, these were the things that told him exactly how to treat his patients, what mixtures of herbal items to mix and how often to make the patient drink and wash with them. The Healer was like a go-between, a messenger almost.
Neither Healer claimed to charge for their services, but both stated that once the treatment was complete they would ask the spirits what the patient needed to bring. Bringing goats, chickens, even cats were all common practice for sacrifice to the spirits, however one Healer shocked me by saying sometimes the spirits wanted a patient to let one of his cows free. To no longer be owned and one day slaughtered for food. I couldn’t help but think this cow or whatever animal would only be claimed by someone else in the community however!
Another area that shocked me was that both Healers claimed that certain medical problems they would refer the patient to the hospital, if they thought something might be tuberculosis or Aids they told them to get a blood test from the hospital. Which means that these Healers in fact do believe in the power of western medicine? This I did not expect, I would have thought that these were also areas that they would claim to be able to heal.
Briefly the subject of witchcraft was touched and although vague I didn’t expect anything else. The second Healer explained that some witches were born that way and others become witches throughout their lives. To be a witch isn’t apparently the person but the witch spirit within a body. Mostly witches are accused of wanting to kill a community member, when this happens the accused is summoned to the Healer’s place. The witch is invited to leave the victim alone and not kill, if the witch insists on killing then the Traditional Healer threatens that he will call the spirits to be against them. The Healer then summons the spirits to fight this witch, making that person go mad and be disgraced by the community, so that they become powerless. I can’t help but feel that all these accused witches are in fact people that have mental or behavioural problems and probably need medical help. And yet these are the ones thrown to the wolves, we hear about communities and their witch hunts around Africa that only end up in the mob justice of death.
Do I believe in all that I have been told? No. Would I go to a healer over going to a doctor? No. Would I ever go to a government certified Traditional Healer? No. Do I think that some plant medicine can indeed cure headaches or stomach aches? Yes. The rest is for you to judge, I’m just reporting what I have managed to find out in a few small hours.