Timeless wisdom: traditional healing in Africa

Posted on August 31, 2009.

Tall, thin and dreadlocked, Kwame Sousa is an artist, a documentary film producer, and an avid soccer player. Whenever he sprains a muscle, he visits his granny or the neighbourhood traditional healer for a rub with a homemade herbal potion.

“It smells strongly of wine gone vinegary but it works ,” he says.

The forest is their pharmacy. Photo: M. Sayagues

The forest is their pharmacy. Photo: M. Sayagues

Last year, when he was scratching madly with chickenpox, his  granny’s ointment of coconut oil and leaves relieved the itchiness.

When his friend  Geane Castro  feels a cold coming, his grandmother makes him a hot bath with water infused with leaves and bark, then a special tea with plants she gathers in the forest. Presto, he recovers.

I meet them at Teia D’Arte, an art gallery in Sao Tome, the capital of the tiny two-island nation of Sao Tome and Principe, off the coast of Gabon.

With a rich biodiversity of 600 botanical species and 132 endemic plants, the islands’ rainforest is a well-stocked pharmacy for herbalists.

Their knowledge is captured in a decade-long  ethno-pharmacological study published last year. Researchers worked with 40 traditional healers, midwives and grandmothers to identify and classify 325 medicinal plants, note 1,000 recipes and test 25 plants in the lab. Many look promising for developing new medicines.

Generations of expertise

Across Africa, healers hold an impressive knowledge of medicinal plants, accumulated through generations and transmitted through years of apprenticeship.

The new generation of healers blends tradition with modernity. They throw the bones, brew herbal medicines, book patients by cellphone and negotiate the complexities of modern life. They follow tradition and break away from it.

Nkunzi Zandile Nkabinde is a young Zulu sangoma - the word for traditional healer in South Africa. bullthumbnailShe works in  Soweto, married her partner in June,  and wrote a book about her life in an homophobic society:  Black Bull, Ancestors and Me: My Life as a Lesbian Sangoma.

Today, 31 August, is the African Traditional Medicine Day, established in 2001 by the World Health Organisation.

Repressed by colonial authorities, condemned as witchcraft by churches, spurned by post-colonial Marxist governments, African traditional medicine is regaining prestige.

The WHO describes it as “heritage, knowledge and healing that is affordable, accessible, and culturally acceptable”.

For a majority of Africans, especially rural, traditional medicine is the main professional health care, sometimes the only one available,or the cheapest and closest. In the cities, many people will consult both a bio-medical doctor and a traditional healer.

In Africa, to cure is to restore human vitality and harmony with the universe. Body and soul are not separate entities; they are linked to nature, spirits and other people.

The timeless wisdom of healers is an essential part of African health.  “It would be sad to lose this knowledge,” says Sousa.