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African traditional medicine: ‘Time to banish all fallacies’

As African Traditional Medicine Day is celebrated, a local healer is aiming to banish all misconceptions often plaguing traditional healing and medicine.
Written by Lilita Gcwabe

Today is African Traditional Medicine Day and local healers are hoping to clear the air when it comes to misconceptions about traditional healing. They have called for ubungoma, meaning the ‘gift of healing’ through a sangoma, to be respected.

African traditional medicine is more relevant than ever and has enjoyed an uptick during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Philasande Mzamo, a traditional healer from Johannesburg, says there has been an increase in the demand for umhlonyane mixes (African wormwood or Artemisia) and herbal remedies for steaming as people look for alternatives while fighting the virus.

Mzamo, whose ancestral name is Bhekintaba – meaning custodian of the mountains – emphasized the importance of embracing this traditional form of healing and its roots.

“African spirituality allows a chain of communication between God, our ancestors, nature and the cosmos. When we are out of balance with any of these, the effects manifest themselves physically or mentally through illness or spiritual imbalances,” explained Mzamo.

She believes a lack of understanding has led to people often having mixed feelings about what traditional healing entails.

“Colonisation problematized African spirituality by degenerating it to witchcraft or voodoo. The West saw and possibly continues to see our treatment modalities failing to meet common understandings of what it considers ‘best practices’, even though African spirituality was never created or put in place to reject the colonial order. It has always just existed; for itself, its beliefs and for its people.”

‘Embrace the esoteric’

Mzamo explained that sickness within the indigenous African worldview is not only an imbalance of the body, but also an imbalance in one’s social life and family relations. All of which can affect a person’s physical and mental health.

“For the magic of healing in alternative medicine to happen, one must at a level — no matter how small — believe. This means abandoning the science partially or even completely and embracing the esoteric,” she added.

“Traditional medicine and traditional forms of healing do not exclude nature, and nature is God. In that process of healing, the nature of the client has to change. This definitely alters the psyche and plays a role in the way that the healing will take place for them mentally and physically.”

Counselling is crucial

Tshegofatso Ngobeni, whose ancestral name is Gogo Muhlavasi, is a traditional healer and qualified journalist based in Fourways, Johannesburg.

She believes that counselling is an important part of clearly delivering the message from the client’s ancestors which provides spiritual healing and fulfilment for the client.

“People come to us shaking, nervous and confused because of the things they go through in life. They come to healers to seek guidance and confirmation about what is happening in the spiritual realm which manifests itself in what they see in the physical,” said Ngobeni.

She went on to add: “So, the counseling is important to mentally prepare the client for what is coming spiritually and to help them understand it and do the work afterwards. Whether they are older or younger than me, man or woman, the spirit that guides me is the one that will advise them through me by communicating with their ancestors.”

Seeking a ‘sense of direction’

Like many others, *Phelisa Mlangeni, has suffered many setbacks during lockdown.

“I felt like I suffered a lot of loss last year. Losing my job due to the pandemic and my sister due to COVID-19, has left me feeling physcially ill and mentally drained. On my worst days I would feel nauseous and experience heart palpitations from the anxiety and stress,” said the 32-year-old from the Vaal.

Mlangeni said that she was referred to a traditional healer by a friend. She said that when she decided to book a consultation, she was looking for a sense of direction to where her life was going and reassurance that the hardships she was going through were not in vain.

“Even with all the pain and confusion that I still felt, there was a sense of calmness over my life that kept on growing since I had my consultation. My traditional healer was able to interpret the dreams that I felt were haunting me since the death of my sister. Mixing herbs to bathe in and burning candles to communicate with my ancestors are some of the things I was advised to do in order to connect with my ancestors and receive guidance from them.”

Mlangeni said that she will continue to use traditional medicine because of the reassurance she receives about her life and the healing it provides for both her mental and phsycial health.

Ubungoma must be respected

Ubungoma  can be understood as the ‘gift of healing’ through being a sangoma (traditional healer).

“No one wakes up in the morning and suddenly gets initiated to become a traditional healer because it’s fashionable or because they are bored. Some of us have lost a lot during this journey: we have lost jobs, children, family members, and some are going through divorces because of the spiritual calling. It’s important to respect ubungoma as the gift that was given to you by your ancestors, to help people,” said Ngobeni.

‘Government can do better’

In March 2020, when SA went into lockdown, one of the essential services and products that people could leave their homes for was for medical care and medicines at pharmacies or clinics. However, traditional healers and African traditional medicine were not regarded as essential.

“During level 5, all rivers, beaches, and parks were closed to the public – this meant that we were not able to work or perform our rituals and ceremonies. It also meant that hunting for our medicine and herbs became impossible. We couldn’t even see our patients in the indumba (traditional healer’s sacred room)  due to the restrictions. The hard lockdown was a harsh reminder of how the government views traditional healers and traditional forms of healing,” said Ngobeni.

She said that the government needs to do more to recognize and validate the role that African traditional medicine plays in the physical wellness and mental health of people.

COVID-19 and African traditional medicine

Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, said in her message in celebration of African Traditional Medicine Day, that as part of the COVID-19 response, promising traditional medicine therapies are emerging.

“In Cameroon for example, the Ministry of Health has approved two products as complementary therapies for COVID-19. Madagascar’s herbal remedy, COVID-Organics Plus Curative, is in phase III trials and encouraging preliminary results have been reported. We look forward to the final results of this trial, and of trials underway for different products in 12 other African countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Uganda and South Africa,” explained Moeti.

She said that at the highest of levels, the pandemic has improved awareness of the value of traditional medicine.

“Investing more in research and development will contribute to harnessing homegrown solutions to improve well-being on the continent, and in other parts of the world.” – Health-e News 

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Lilita Gcwabe