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27

October

Is African Traditional Medicine Mere Hocus-Pocus?

Many Westerners who practice alternative medicine and those who seek their services are familiar with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and the East Indian healing system, Ayurveda. These are the most often consulted systems in the West.

Yet, the continent of Africa is deemed to be the birthplace of medicine. Roger Highfield, Science Editor at The Telegraph (UK), even suggests that the history books need to be revised to reflect that the Egyptians, not the Greeks, most significantly Hippocrates, were the true fathers of medicine.

The main problem with (ATM) taking root in western mindset is image. Maurice Iwu, author of the says it best:

The popular image of the African medicine man is that of the fabled witch doctor, with his exotic paraphernalia of feathers, cowries and animal skin, muttering meaningless incantations and dispensing worthless potions to his ignorant clients.

Modern day Africa, like China and India, developed unique healing traditions adapted and defined by various cultural, spiritual and environmental influences. This system of healing has been satisfying the health needs of Africans for generations. Practitioners of western medicine do not understand – and even feel threatened – by a system that is steeped in ritual. Traditional healers dressed in elaborate costumes employing spiritual and supernatural practices seem in direct opposition to the evidence-based approach of modern medicine. After all, it’s hard to document a shamanic vision in a clinical laboratory.

According to Africa Renewal (United Nations), traditional healers in African countries “divine the cause of a person’s illness by throwing bones to interpret the will of dead ancestors. Some healers say they directly channel the ancestral spirit through their bodies.” This divination process is the traditional form of diagnosis which views illness as having spiritual connections and thus must be interpreted in the same context. The ‘cure’ may involve further ritual and/or herbal/talismanic medicine. Western medicine views these practitioners as simply charlatans preying on the superstitions of the locals.

The sad truth is that charlatans exist in all walks of life. In every culture there are those who would take advantage of the ignorance and innocence of others. Traditional medicine is no exception.

That, however, is no reason to discredit the system.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Chief Medical Correspondent for CNN, admits that in his profession, doctors “make mistakes” to the tune of more than 12 million adults being misdiagnosed every year and roughly 100,000 deaths from medical errors.

With years in medical school and advanced specializations, no one dares to question the medical establishment’s reputation. When in fact, many traditional healers have in-depth knowledge of plant materials and their various curative powers which, according to Iwu “cannot be reduced to simple .”  Traditional medicine is a complex mixture of science, culture and spirit, with a growing field of spiritual herbalists and healers in the West.

ATM practitioners are proving that they can compete and sometimes supersede science with their systems of healing. In recent times, we see increasing cooperation between western trained medical doctors and traditional healers in the treatment of devastating diseases such as AIDS, as well as the establishment of unions and associations for traditional healers in various African countries.

With renewed popularity in Africa and it’s resources, there is growing concern regarding and intellectual property rights as drug companies are seeking to tap into the knowledge of these traditional healers without compensation. What was once viewed as quackery is now an opportunity for profit. A quick search on retail giant, Amazon.com, results in numerous remedies and books on African herbalism and the “folk medicine” brought to the new world by enslaved Africans.

This renewed interest may very well position African Traditional Medicine and holistic healing systems as a viable player in the health of African people, and indeed, the world. But at what price and who will be the main beneficiaries?

This article was first published by Aamirah Branch in Natural Islands Magazine of Bermuda, 2007 edition. Updated and revised, October 2015.

About the author 

Aamirah

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