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Traditional African Medicine: Herbalism, Spirituality and Treating HIV/AIDS

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AIDS / HIV related image Paul Hakimata/PhotoSpin

Throughout Africa, there are more traditional healers than trained medical practitioners, according to the book Healing Traditions: African Medicine, Cultural Exchange, and Competition in South Africa, 1820-1948. The traditional healers promote traditional African medicine, a form of holistic health that combines spiritual beliefs and herbalism to treat patients. Because traditional healers are so well-respected and trusted by their communities, many practitioners and followers of westernized medicine believe the healers can play an important role in treating deadly epidemics such as HIV/AIDS among Africans.

Avert.org says that during colonial rule, traditional African medicine was almost eliminated because many disagreed with the medical practice’s belief in witchcraft. However, the traditional form of medicine remains in Africa today and most Africans use it as their health care. In traditional African medicine, healers strive to discover the primary cause of an illness rather than trying to treat all the symptoms. Healers pass on knowledge of traditional medicine from generation to generation.

Herbalism is one of the main methods used to treat various sicknesses in traditional African medicine. Since the continent of Africa has an abundance of herbs and plants from areas such as rain forests, healers use the indigenous flora as treatments. According to livestrong.com, African healers are knowledgeable of which herbs to use, what the herbs treat and how to combine the various herbs and plants to create treatment remedies. When extreme illnesses arise, western medicine usually performs surgery or prescribes antibiotics, but traditional African healers use herbal medicines “for equalizing unbalanced relationships within the social or spiritual order,” said Aone Mokaila in her paper at Drury University’s Interdisciplinary Research Conference. For a full list of typical traditional African herbs and their uses, look at: http://www.herbalremediesworld.com/African-herbal-remedies.html

Spiritual beliefs such as witchcraft affect traditional African medicine. According to Mokaila, when traditional healers track the root of a disease, they seek to discover whom, rather than what, caused the disease. Most of the native people believe that witchcraft is the cause of many diseases. Witchcraft or dead individuals who are angry at living ones are believed to be the sources of all diseases, hardships and deaths. In fact, sciencedaily.com says that “Over thirty percent of [Ghana’s] inhabitants believe such evil forces could be responsible for the spread of HIV/AIDS.”

Sub-Saharan Africa contains about 97 percent of all people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in the world, says the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Over the last decade, western medicine systems and supporters have attempted to combine western and traditional African medical practices in order to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Native Africans trust traditional healers, and avert.org says that those affected by HIV/AIDS usually seek help from the healers. Therefore, many western medicine supporters believe traditional healers may be able to help treat HIV/AIDS. Avert.org says, “In South Africa, The Traditional Health Practitioners Act includes a council to oversee and provide training to traditional health practitioners to protect the interests of the patient.” The act is not entirely implemented, but various organizations attempting to merge western and traditional African medicine hope they can train traditional healers about how to teach locals about HIV/AIDS, create support groups for those with the disease, prevent the disease, serve as counselors, and pass out birth control.

Although attempts to use traditional healers as a way to battle HIV/AIDS are being made, many of the healers resist the teachings. Avert.org explains that “Traditional healers - suppressed during the colonial era, and often demonised in the media - are understandably suspicious of authority.” Because herbalism is a main part of traditional African medicine, the organizations try to oblige the healers by asking them how to use native herbs as treatment. However, the healer’s distrust causes them to fear that western medical practitioners will steal the herbal remedies and sell them as pharmaceutical antibiotics, said Mokaila. As traditional African medicine continues to be the main form of health care in Africa, western medicine strives to find a middle ground where the two practices can exist while successfully treating illnesses.


Conference of Healers: Traditional African Medicine

Traditional African medicine

Top African herbal remedies

African Healing Herbs

Traditional vs. Western Medicine - African Context

Recognition and respect for African traditional medicine

African Medicine, Cultural Exchange, and Competition in South Africa, 1820–1948

What are alternative and complementary medicines?

Modern Medicine Conquers Witchcraft in Fight Against AIDS in Ghana

HIV/AIDS: Frequently Asked Questions

Edited by Jody Smith

Add a Comment3 Comments

EmpowHER Guest

Terrible that the epidemic has taken grip in that region of the world. Biggest question to me is how did HIV get there?!? With Guatemala suing John Hopkins Hospital and US + European Doctors for medical studies in the 60's, 70's and 80's that spread diseases including HIV, I wouldn't be shocked if the Afrikaner gov't. had something to do with the release of HIV on the growing anti white gov't population... SMH

April 7, 2015 - 8:40pm
EmpowHER Guest

South Africa's denial of AIDS and President Mbeki's belief that AZT is poisonous, and instead, reliance on traditional healing, has led it to be the number one most HIV-infected country in the world. Because of the belief that traditionalists could cure, or even manage HIV/AIDS, millions of people have been denied the cocktail of anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) that could have saved their lives, a move that effectively murdered hundreds of thousands of South Africans.
It was only through the work of people like Zackie Achmat and TAC, and support from Nelson Mandela, WHO's AIDS Division Chief Jim Yong Kim and Stephen Lewis, the UN Special Envoy on AIDS in Africa, who broke diplomatic ranks and called the South African government "obtuse, dilatory and negligent" that change finally came. It was not until 2006 when deputy health minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge stepped forward and said the government had been "in denial at the highest levels" about the success of ARVs that change finally began.
There is no success against fighting or managing AIDS using traditional African medicine, although it certainly has its merits elsewhere. To suggest so at this point, when life-saving ARVs are finally becoming available in large quantities to most African countries, is a huge step backward.
Suggested reading: "28: Stories of AIDS in Africa" by award-winning journalist Stephanie Nolen.

August 12, 2011 - 10:23am
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to Anonymous)

It is a tragedy that the denial of anti-retroviral drugs to South Africans has led to so many deaths. It should be absolutely obvious to anyone that traditional African medicine has no healing affect on the HIV virus. If a traditional cure existed, the great drug companies would have leapt at a chance to market it,

March 27, 2015 - 2:40am
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