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African traditional medicine is the oldest, and perhaps the most assorted, of all therapeutic systems. Africa is considered to be the cradle of mankind with a rich biological and cultural diversity marked by regional differences in healing practices. African traditional medicine in its varied forms is holistic involving both the body and the mind.

The traditional healer typically diagnoses and treats the psychological basis of an illness before prescribing medicines, particularly medicinal plants to treat the symptoms.

The most common traditional medicine in common practice across the African continent is the use of medicinal plants. In many parts of Africa, medicinal plants are the most easily accessible health resource available to the community. In addition, they are most often the preferred option for the patients. For most of these people, traditional healers offer information, counseling, and treatment to patients and their families in a personal manner as well as having an understanding of their patient’s environment.

Indeed, Africa is blessed with enormous biodiversity resources and it is estimated to contain between 40 and 45,000 species of plant with a potential for development and out of which 5,000 species are used medicinally.

This is not surprising since Africa is located within the tropical and subtropical climate and it is a known fact that plants accumulate important secondary metabolites through evolution as a natural means of surviving in a hostile environment. Because of her tropical conditions, Africa has an unfair share of strong ultraviolet rays of the tropical sunlight and numerous pathogenic microbes, including several species of bacteria, fungi, and viruses, suggesting that African plants could accumulate chemopreventive substances more than plants from the northern hemisphere. Interestingly, Abegaz et al. have observed that of all species of Dorstenia (Moraceae) analysed, only the African species, Dorstenia mannii Hook.f, a perennial herb growing in the tropical rain forest of Central Africa contained more biological activity than related species.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), it has been estimated that “about 80% of the population in developing countries depend s on traditional medicine for their Primary Health Care (PHC) needs.” What is presently known as ‘conventional medicine’ has its origins in the West.

Though this is arguably the most prominent form of medicine today, it is not accessible to, or the first choice for, everyone. Therefore, many still rely on traditional medicine even today. Some forms of traditional medicine include: traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine (which has origins in ancient Indian society), and traditional African medicine. It is the last of these examples that this article will examine.

The Prevalence of Traditional African Medicine

In the continent of Africa, traditional (or ancestral) African medicine seems to be much more prevalent compared to conventional, Western medicine. In West Africa, for instance, it has been estimated that between 70-80% of the population rely on traditional medicine. Such figures, however, are not unique to that part of Africa alone, but may even be applied to the whole continent. In the countries of the WHO - African Region, it has been claimed that “60-80% of people rely on African traditional medicine for their primary health care.”

A Holistic Approach

One major difference between conventional, Western medicine and traditional African medicine, is the way of viewing illnesses and their treatments. Unlike its Western counter-part, traditional African medicine is said to take a holistic approach, which is based on the premise of interconnectedness, and often includes indigenous herbalism in its treatment.

According to traditional African belief, human beings are made up of various aspects – physical, spiritual, moral, and social. When these parts function together harmoniously, a person will be in good health. On the other hand, if any of these features are out of balance, a person will become physically, or even spiritually, ill. Thus, illness is not viewed as just a physical disorder, but could also be a spiritual, moral, or social disorder. Similarly, the treatment of an ill person involves not only aiding his/her physical being, but may also involve the spiritual, moral, and social components of being as well.

Secret Medicine Societies

Practitioners of traditional African medicine are quite different from doctors who practice conventional medicine. It has been said that the former are often priestesses, high priests, diviners, midwives, and herbalists, and are known by different names in different parts of Africa, including sangoma, n’anga, and inyanga.

It has also been said that prior to attaining an education in traditional African medicine, one is often required to be initiated into a secret society, as many characteristics of this form of medicine can only be passed down to initiates. The knowledge of traditional African medicine has often been handed down orally, frequently in the form of stories, from one generation to the next.

Colonial Stigmas

During the colonial period, the arrival of Western medicine had a negative impact on traditional African medicine. For instance, ancestral medicine was viewed as inferior, and therefore was stigmatized and marginalized. As a result, the development of this branch of African knowledge was stymied for a long time. In some extreme cases, traditional African medicine was completely banned, due to its association with ‘witchcraft.’ In the eyes of the colonists, this supposed ‘witchcraft’ was regarded as ‘backward’ and ‘superstitious’ and therefore something undesirable that they believed should be eliminated.

It is not clear as to the degree of success achieved by the efforts of the colonialists to eradicate traditional African medicine. Although the colonial authorities were able to pass laws banning such a practice, it would probably have been nearly impossible to stop people from practicing it. Even if they were successful in their efforts, the WHO estimations show that there is a modern resurgence in this practice. Rather than attempting to get rid of traditional African medicine, a contemporary approach shows that it may be far more beneficial to try to learn from traditional practices and work with the practitioners to combat illnesses in Africa.

Protection for Traditional Knowledge

Numerous studies have been conducted on traditional African medicine. The aims of these studies regularly include the protection of this ancestral form of knowledge, the use of such a system to complement the conventional one, and the way forward for traditional African medicine in the 21st century.

For example, as such a high percentage of Africans are thought to seek the aid of a traditional healer when they are ill, the practitioners could help in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Furthermore, organizations trying to combine traditional African and conventional Western medicine hope to be able to train traditional healers to, amongst other things, raise awareness amongst locals about the disease, serve as counsellors, and combat the spread of this disease. Thus, the progressive view is to see how the holistic style of treatment may also be a complimentary method to the Western version of medicine.

Featured image: N’anga (spiritual healer or herbalist) of the Shona people. Great Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe.

References

Kasilo, O. M., Trapsida, J.-M., Mwikisa, C. N. & Lusamba-Dikassa, P. S., 2010. An Overview of the Traditional Medicine Situation in the African Region.

Mham, P. P., Busia, K. & Kasilo, O. M., 2010. Clinical practices of African traditional medicine.

Science Museum, London, 2015. African medical traditions.

Article byAnita Kelley