Traditional healers are trusted and held in high esteem in African culture. After all they were around before conventional medicine could reach African shores. Their help is often called upon during times of illness and adversities. They offer counselling and can treat certain illnesses using herbal medicines. In South Africa there are over 200 000 traditional healers and it is estimated that more than 80% of the populace consults traditional practitioners and uses their medicines for a range of illnesses from headaches to sexual dysfunction. HIV has never been an exception.
‘During that phase when the government was not issuing any antiretrovirals people were coming to the healers in order to be cured of HIV and AIDS’, says Boyce Mgcina, a traditional healer belonging to the Zifozonke Traditional Healers’ Association in Zola township, Soweto.
Bab’ uMgcina, as he is known has been a traditional healer for just more than 25 years, which is roughly the same time as when the first cases of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, were first observed in New York and California in the United States of America before they could be seen in other countries.
‘We claimed as healers that we have cured HIV and AIDS’, says Mgcina of the two decades that he has spent seeing clients presenting with HIV.
But that was before antiretrovirals could be available in South Africa. However, some traditional healers still claim that they can cure HIV and AIDS even today.
At a recent meeting of traditional healers and community members of Zola Community Health Centre, Makhosi Maude Sibiya, a traditional healer, spoke of her abilities to cure AIDS. Speaking in isiZulu, the emotionally-charged stout woman dressed in traditional sangoma regalia, told the gathering that ‘AIDS is curable’. ‘I’m talking about people that I cure myself. People have children ‘ sometimes even four ‘ yet they’ve got AIDS’, Makhosi Sibiya, boasted.
She was supported by a colleague, a very young makhosi, Andile Zungu. ‘We can cure AIDS. But as it takes time, we need our patients to be patient’, added Zungu.
But that assertion did not go unchallenged by members of the community.
‘That’s controversial’, pointed out Andile Kiewitz, a resident. ‘That is controversial because at the end of the day what we know is that there is no cure for AIDS. What we are having is a situation whereby we are saying ‘we can treat the disease so that we can minimise the disease’. But there is no cure for it internationally, traditionally or otherwise. That’s what we know’, Kiewitz continued.
‘My name is Mandla Thole from here in Zola 1’, announced another resident. ‘I want to know if the HI-virus can be totally eradicated from a person ‘ such that they won’t ever have it again’!
Bab’ uMgcina, of the Zifozonke Association of Traditional Healers was present at the meeting. The name ‘Zifozonke’ suggests that the healers can help with any form of illness.
‘As traditional healers, I want to emphasise that we don’t have a cure for HIV and AIDS. Even Western medicine practitioners don’t have a cure,’ Bab’ uMgcina entered the fray.
He said of the misconception some traditional healers have about treating AIDS:
‘Because you have come to that person, maybe you were in bed, they brought you in there by stretcher, after I’ve given you medicine and then he sees you recovering, he says ‘no, I can cure that disease. I’ve cured that person,’ meaning that he’s treated you’.
‘We took HIV as symptoms, whereas those symptoms were just opportunistic infections. That we learned through engaging with conventional medicine trainers, that ‘no, you people. You can’t claim to have healed that person. The virus is hiding somewhere’. If the person can go for VCT they can’t see it. It’s untraceable. But the virus is there. We thought, ‘whoa’! Diarrhoea we have stopped. Thrush we have taken out; shingles and other sores on the body; the person was coughing and you see the person is alright, gaining weight, feeling good at himself, and you say ‘oh, we’ve healed him,’ whereas it was wrong’, Bab ‘uMgcina continued.
The role of traditional medicine is well understood. There is no law in South Africa that prohibits the practice of traditional medicine. However, there is concern that traditional medicines are not registered for any medical indication, more so when some make bold claims of curative abilities, such as in the case of Ubhejane, a liquid concoction promoted as a cure for AIDS by a former KwaZulu-Natal truck driver, Zebulon Gwala.
‘In South Africa, before a medicine can be prescribed by a doctor or a health care practitioner it has to be registered with the Medicines Control Council (MCC). With African traditional medicines we don’t have so much evidence on issues of safety and toxicity and very little evidence on how these African traditional medicines work or if they work’, cautions Professor Anthony MBewu, President of the Medical Research Council (MRC).