When we talk about health and disease in Africa, we need to consider the cultural context in which they occur. What does ‘being sick’ mean to an African?
It is not a simple issue. Traditional medicine and traditional healers play key roles in African society. In this context, diseases do not affect only individuals but, in a broad sense, they also affect their relationship with their universe, and more strictly, their relationship with their immediate family, relatives, as well as the people of the village.
Modern medicine can do very little, if we consider the concept of disease, as it is often considered by many in the African continent, that is, as a problem that regards not only the individual, but his relationship with his cosmos and the entire community. It is estimated that many patients in Africa still prefer to contact their traditional healers prior to going to a hospital or a clinic. They believe, in fact, that modern medicine cannot cure some diseases. On the contrary, African traditional healing is considered a ‘complete medicine’ by several African people.
Traditional healers usually attempt to reconnect the social and emotional equilibrium of patients based on community rules and relationships, unlike medical doctors who only treat diseases in patients. Traditional African healing is an approach to medicine based on the premise of interconnectedness. Disease is understood to be a misalignment or spiritual/social disorder either internal or external. It is believed that all people are made up of many levels of being which function together as a whole; moral, social, physical and spiritual, and if any of these parts are out of balance, the person will become physically ill or suffer spiritually. Traditional healers do more than providing patients with medicine.
They go beyond just treating the disease. First and foremost they ‘connect’ both collectively and individually and lead the people to their own healing. Communicating is one of the most used methods of curing by traditional healers. Words become the therapy to re-establish the reconciliation of the sick person, with his family, his neighbours and the people of the village. The patient and all the others in the community are encouraged to express any dissent, in order to clear up all misunderstandings which may have compromised the harmony in the group. African traditional healing practices also include the use of herb medicaments and enchantments, which are aimed at reaffirming the victory of life over death and evil.
According to African tradition curing somebody is not just treating his physical disease, but also reorganizing his universe and that of his group. Traditional healers are supposed, not only to treat the disease of the patient, but to re-conciliate him with his community and his cosmos, since human beings are considered as a part of the whole, and are believed to be strictly connected with the invisible world. Getting healed to an African, means much more than just recovering from a physical illness, it means rediscovering the meaning of life. (H.L.)