Integrating Traditional African Healing for a Better Healthcare System

Integrating Traditional African Healing for a Better Healthcare System

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South Africa is a unique country, fertile with extensive cultures, beliefs and its own way of doing things. As such, our medical system should adapt to this. Movements such as #ScienceMustFall and the decolonisation of education are merely the beginning of a fresh, decolonised South Africa.


Science, as a subject, is an extremely problematic notion. In previous times, ‘science’ proclaimed that the world was flat, aliens built the ancient world and black people don’t feel any pain. Not only is science problematic in its teachings, but it resulted in the oppression of an entire race, merely because their skin was a different colour. As such, it is clear that science and pseudoscience is particularly blurred.


The basis of science is generally the theories of a few old, white men, discovered many years ago. And, because of its racist tendencies, it tended to erase the experiences, practices and methods of people of colour. Medicine today has its background in herbal remedies, many of which are still used in traditional African healing today. A perfect example would be Rooibos products. It was initially utilised by Khoisan, it is now a product sold for its taste, and its believed ability to assist with anxiety, allergies and digestive issues.


#ScienceMustFall is not about the erasure of science as a subject. Rather, it is about making it context specific to South Africa. By decolonising science, specifically health sciences, we give patients a culturally sensitive and context specific treatment, based on their needs. We tend to forget that human beings are multi-faceted. Physical health is just as important as emotional and mental health. If a specific treatment contradicts the culture of a patient, it is an issue. Consequently, by altering the science curriculum, we improve the overall well-being of the citizens of this country because we’re examining the deeper spiritual and social aspects of the person.


Traditional African healing, by definition, could be described as “…long established methods passed down from one healer to another to treat a person suffering from various illnesses, many of which have psychological keystones”. There are two prominent forms of traditional healers in South Africa, namely: The inyanga, who uses herbal remedies to cure disease and the often feared sangoma, who acts as a supernatural mediator between the ancestors and the patient. They fulfil a variety of socio-political roles, such as divination; physical, emotional and spiritual healing; birth, death and adolescent rituals (such as circumcision) and various protection and healing rituals.


Many South Africans make use of these healers for a variety of reasons including, but not limited to: a distrust in Western medicine, accessibility reasons such as hospitals being too far or too expensive or merely because the healer is a trusted part of the community.


However, traditional healing has always been a controversial topic in South Africa. Should we take a look back at the Thabo Mbeki HIV/AIDS debacle, we can clearly see why.


Then South African president, Thabo Mbeki appointed Tshabalala-Msimang as the health minister who believed traditional African remedies and natural medicine a cure for the AIDS. Needless to say, this led to an AIDS denialism movement of note, which resulted to the death of many.


Clearly, Western Medicine clearly has its uses in formally funded healthcare. However, this is no way means traditional medicine does not have its place. Personally, I believe it could, and should, be incorporated into formally funded healthcare. Besides the traditional healer being a more affordable, more accessible and pre-integrated part of the community, they may assist Western physicians in improving the overall health of South Africans. Traditional healers are indeed a resource to South Africa because even though they are often overlooked, they could play a significant role in public healthcare.


There are a number of ways in which this could be done without decreasing the significance of the other. According to the 1992 journal Social Science & Medicine, there are three ways in which traditional healing could be incorporated into public healthcare policy which is: Incorporation, collaboration and total integration.


Should we decide on the model of the incorporation of traditional healers, the traditional healers will act as a ‘first line’ health practitioner. They will essentially function as promoters of Western medicine. They would assist by pre-diagnosing patients and referring more complex cases to formalised medical doctors, while simultaneously treating specific illness. In my opinion, this model could be harmful as it undermines traditional healers as autonomous practitioners of health.


With collaboration, both healthcare systems, i.e. traditional and Western, remain separate and autonomous, but both recognise the significance of the other.  In this case, there will be mutual referral between the two practitioners, depending on the case.


With total integration, traditional and Western medicine would be combined to form a new healthcare system. Illness would be viewed through the traditional and Western lens and treatment would be a combination of the two healing methods. This may prove complex, expensive and take many of years to perfect. Furthermore, as a third world country, South Africa may not have the benefit of being able to completely overhaul their medical policy.


Many believe traditional healing is an outdated, primitive and superstitious form of healing. However, should traditional healers get training specific to their niche, they may prove a vital asset to South Africa’s public health.

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