Africa: Traditional Healers

In Central and East Africa, the term most commonly used for a traditional healer is ng’anga. No one can doubt the fundamental role that this occupation still has in the field of health and health services in African societies.

It is hard to define a ng’anga. He is a doctor, when he cures a disease; a priest, if he is consulted on religious matters; a lawyer, when settling legal problems; also a ‘policeman’, when it comes to discovering or preventing a crime. He has ‘miraculous’ preparations that can improve crop yields and instil skills and special talents in his clients.

He satisfies, in short, a long series of requests from the society and his presence provides security for the entire community. The traditional healer is committed to address a range of personal, social, economic and religious problems far more extensive than those treated by Western medicine.

Traditional healers can be grouped into three broad categories, depending on their healing practices. The first is represented by herbalists: they know the plants and medicinal roots and administer them to patients after a simple diagnostic visit; some of these plants and roots are sold in local markets.

The magicians are included in the second category. They consult the spirits to get an “oracle” or question the ancestors to find out the cause of the disease and proper care; one goes to them especially in the case of an aggravation of the state of health. Those who practice magic and witchcraft are also included in this category.

The third category consists of the ‘mediums of the local spirits’. ‘Possessed’ by the spirit of an ancestor, they are able to understand the causes and remedies of certain types of diseases, considered ‘disturbances of the soul’, and to counter the negative effects of magic and witchcraft. In the past, recourse to them to find out the causes of natural disasters and epidemics was frequent, or to find out about the method of healing of an entire group of people – if not an entire region – in the case of general malaise caused by sudden social changes or conflict.

These three classes of healers should not be seen as so many registers of professionals, rigidly defined and without any cross-over between them: according to necessity, a medium may simply prescribe a brew of herbs, while a herbalist does not hesitate to resort to divination to diagnose a disease. Typically, however, no one likes to be identified as a ‘magician’ or ‘sorcerer’ who procures evils for other. All claim to protect people, to purify the negative outcomes of magic, and to offer ‘extra energy’ to have success in life. The public really believe that they have special powers and can use them both to protect them from an enemy or a disease, as well as to cause them damage.

There are several ways to become a traditional healer but there are four major ones: heritage, learning, revelation, possession by a spirit. If a person has a family healer and learned knowledge and practices from him, he will almost certainly succeed him after his death. And if the deceased was ‘well known’, whoever replaces him will do everything to keep the reputation alive, to the point of keeping the name, as if to ensure thereby the continuation of the same family tradition.

Apprentices are required to undergo a long apprenticeship. A herbalist begins by presenting the simplest and better known herbs to his ‘students’, to then move on to the rarer and more powerful ones, as well as to the different methods of mixing and administering them. He describes the cause and nature of the various diseases and explains the ways to diagnose, prevent and treat them. The training can last from six months to several years, during which the students are assigned to their medical teachers, assisting them when they treat patients.

When the ng’anga understands that one of his disciples is now quite comfortable with the art, he allows him to start his own healing center. Obviously, the more prestigious the teacher, the better chance the ‘graduate’ will have of making a career.

In the vocation and formation of many ng’anga, dreams, apparitions and revelations play an important role. Usually, it is an ancestor who, in a dream, calls this or that descendent to become a healer. In the case of a medium, however, it requires the experience of a serious disease that leads him to the verge of death – it is at that precise moment that the call comes from an ancestor or a spirit.

The function of the ng’anga is to practice healing in the broadest and most comprehensive sense of the term. There is no pathological condition that they do not know how to deal with – respiratory infections (asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis), diarrhea, abdominal pain, ulcers. They do not give up in front of diabetes, hypotension to hypertension, to serious infections of the skin and eyes.

They are skilled in dealing with sexually transmitted diseases, migraine and infertility. Not to mention mental illness and epilepsy. And if there is no herb capable of eradicating a disease, they resort to exorcism to drive out the spirit that caused it.

A prerogative of traditional medicine is that it be available to everyone: available in every village, where you can buy it at the local market; it does not cost much because it is produced locally. Traditional healers spend a great amount of time with patients. They know that in a sick body there is a frightened soul. Thanks to their knowledge of pharmacology and psychology, they are real benefactors of entire populations, especially if poor and not able to pay the expensive drugs of Western medicine.

There is an undeniable fact. In many farming communities that still lack modern medical equipment, they are the only ones that assist the public health. And not only: having to occupy themselves also with psychosomatic and psychiatric problems or ‘spiritual’ disorders caused by witchcraft, they are the most faithful custodians of the traditions and cultural values, which they resort to to suggest therapy (which often presents itself as being of a ‘group’).

In recent years, thanks to a positive approach, many healthcare institutions have overcome the idea that there is nothing to learn from traditional healers. An integration of the two approaches, traditional and modern, of medicine, would be beneficial to all. In many parts of Africa the chemical properties of some herbs and plants used by healers has begun to be examined. The intention is to develop new drugs that can be produced locally and cheaply. It would be a mistake not to consider a secular knowledge that has always helped – and continues to help Africans to be better.

– J.C. Chakanza

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