Human rights and traditional practices: an opposition or opportunity for empowerment?

In 1990, the World Health Organization asserted that traditional healers are a cultural right (Report of the Consultation on Aids and Traditional Medicine: Prospects for Involving Traditional Health Practitioners). It is now widely recognized that traditional healers are an important asset to be incorporated into a developing country’s health infrastructure. As a result, countries such as Tanzania have implemented important measures to strengthen the —- of traditional and conventional medicine. The World Health Organization believes that a proper relationship asserts a “promotion of social justice through ensuring safe, culturally acceptable, and cost effective traditional medical care to individuals and communities” (6).  In Ghanaian  adinkra, sankofa is the appropriate word, roughly meaning it is okay to go back and get what you have forgotten. Through “promotion of the beneficial effects of traditional medical care and elimination of the harmful ones,” “respect for the person as an individual and the community as a whole” is obtained (6).

Here, I outline my own experiences in Tanzania with a traditional healer as a follow up to my previous post blogging on my experiences abroad*

We traveled along a bumpy and dusty road, past scores of pedestrians and little dukas until finally; we halted amidst the heat and a cloud of choking dirt only to discover our way into a dual ofisi/home where a traditional healer holds his residence and prominent, years-long reputation. The short, stooped man had a face of wrinkles and folded amidst them, piercing eyes filled with spark. We crowded around him in a small room and became immersed in his world.

He is a traditional healer, a local doctor. He was given this power by his ancestors; spirits led him into a forest and when he woke again, stumbling back, he was carrying medicine. He derives his power from both his ancestors and from God. He cures malaria with parts from trees he must travel great distances to obtain and has trained many people under him to carry on his legacy. It reminded me of an essay I read before landing in this foreign land, about how African systems of thinking are not easily reducible to European processes of logic. It seemed that I was becoming a part of an age old tradition that surpassed people themselves.

Huddling together in his small waiting room with its chipped blue paint and concrete floor, I listened as he explained the relationship between him and the “modern medicine”. They work together, refer patients to each other. They learn from each other. Once, he realized the patient was getting worse and sent him to the hospital, only to be called on by them later to stabilize the patient in order for the hospital staff to complete the procedure.

As I looked around the room, unfamiliar substances filled bottles of an old china cabinet. Colored powders, crushed and pulverized solids, ground up spices – they all took up residence in aged canning jars covered in a thick layer of grime and filth. Drums hung from a far wall – worn drums played many a times in fast rhythms to dispel demons that have taken up residence in people’s bodies. The rhythm of the drum beat faster and faster, could be irresistible to the demon who would dance until he was too tired and had to leave the body. It was as if I could imagine the world in which Jesus made spirits rush into pigs or some other great biblical illustration were coming to life. I could feel the narrow edges of Western medicinal beliefs being slowly peeled away. Somehow, I was becoming more in tune with myself by visiting this small, smudged-up structure. I am sure it is a place rarely visited by mzungus.

Trash littered the roads, children ran around in torn up shirts. Stands along the road looked suspiciously likely to have banana beer. Buildings were made of wood and plastered mud. We were in a place the locals said you must not stand too long or the socks off your feet would be stolen. And it’s true; I didn’t see many people wearing socks. Yet in this place, somewhere we reduce to poverty and hunger, my education began.

*This piece was also published by the University of North Dakota Honors Department fall 2011 edition of the Forum under the title “Traditional Healer”

“I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes”

-Maxine Hong Kingston, Asian American novelist


Language causes us to be. But without education, what use of it do we have? To relegate language to utilitarian is to make ourselves less human. But education isn’t always formal – with that I agree. It can take place on a dusty road amidst camels and red-checkered blankets as it did for me in the fall of 2011. It can be over cold hominy soaked in sour milk. It happens in a hut, with drums and spices surrounding the hard and cool surface of a wooden stool.  It’s hard not to exotify the traditional when it seems so many of us in the U.S. have lost touch with our ancestors and history, our own traditions. 

I’ve learned through my life that the world opens itself up to us as much as we allow. Too few allow the opportunity to be changed by ideologies and philosophies that are little understood by a local education. And while I believe that education can take place in the laps of grandmas and grandpas, I also know that it is critical to raise a generation open to other people’s grandmas and grandpas to challenge their own expectations, prejudices and bias.

Through Arcadia University’s Tanzania program, I had the opportunity to learn from people across the planet about things that affect their community – concerns like health and human rights. I discovered a whole new perspective on issues my own community faced back home. That’s the beauty of diversity. But outside of the classroom is where I truly gained. In this specific study abroad program, volunteer positions and internships of an entire smorgasbord opened themselves up to us as students. Everything from volunteering in a local clinic to tanning hides in a museum that was left over from the German colonial period and a non-profit focused on serving the educational needs of Massai women and families to empower them in their future. Students such as I taught in a school as the lone teacher! Can you believe it? Twenty-one years old and I made connections with students that wouldn’t have been possible in the United States. That experience transformed me. It empowered me to advocate and stress the value of education.  I now work as Youth Programming Coordinator in a community that serves immigrants for East Africa! Sometimes, just maybe, we are set on paths on which we are meant to be before we’re even aware.

Forgive me for being sentimental. I wish only that students explore places different from everything they know. To discover themselves in what they feel might be the unknowable. To engage in programs that put themselves in positions of leadership and value. Perhaps in a roundabout way, I am offering up my recommendation: the opportunities for a global education far surpass the classroom in an international education. At Arcadia University’s Tanzania Program, you have the chance to determine your future with an internship in any range of disciplines while you are in school. It’s a program I appreciate having experienced and it’s a program I am still asked about by the staff and students that come to the University of North Dakota’s Center for Human Rights and Genocide Studies.   If you would like to know more about it, please send me an e-mail and I will be happy to provide you with the necessary information.  Or, if you are interested in other potential externships and would like a sounding-board, I am happy to help.  The key is to look outside your immediate surroundings and get in touch with something larger than yourself.  Good luck in your explorations!



Aside  —  Posted: September 7, 2013 in Uncategorized

Our readers have brought to our attention a few opportunities to engage the populace in ending genocide, both through increasing awareness and political activism. In the midst of these opportunities, I provide a number of organizations that focus on this pertinent issue in different manners. I’ll close with a hotline that you can share with anyone and everyone to lobby officials. This blog post is a definite must read!

Stop Genocide Now, an organization working to end genocide, is holding an event you can all be a part of, no matter from which corner of the world you hail. Starting April 6th, the nonprofit will be sponsoring a 100-Day Fast for Darfur in which participants will join by fasting water-only or refugee rations for a day or more. Guisma, a young girl affected by the genocide in Darfur, is one story the organization shares with its viewers. To learn more, check out Stop Genocide Now and sign up for their newsletter.

There’s a number of other organizations that consider issues surrounding genocide and genocide itself.  The Genocide Education Project is a non-profit that assists educators in teaching about human rights and genocide.  The World Without Genocide is another organization which may interest you. Connected to the William Mitchell College of law, the organization also coordinates with Stop Genocide Now (above) and United to End Genocide. There is, of course, the famous Genocide Watch under the direction of Dr. Stanton and the Genocide Prevention Advisory Network ,  in which Dr. Stanton and other scholars are also involved .. Readers are also cognizant of the Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention which has mentioned in recent newsletters that a major announcement will be coming out regarding a role they’ve identified the organization can play after recent visits to Kenya during the elections.

Save Darfur is another frequented name and has actually merged with the Genocide Prevention Advisory Network for a more powerful voice related to atrocities that continue. A few organizations I hadn’t previously heard about extensively include the International Federation of Social Workers and Tamils Against Genocide.

Besides taking part in the fast sponsored by Stop Genocide Now, the Genocide Intervention Network has made it simple for anyone to become politically active in ending genocide. Check out the following information with a link to more information here.

In 2007, Genocide Intervention Network (GI-NET) launched the anti-genocide hotline 1-800-GENOCIDE. Since then, the hotline has directly enabled nearly 30,000 callers to lobby their elected officials on important Darfur and Sudan-related initiatives. The hotline has been a critical tool in the fight to end the genocide in Darfur and bring peace to Sudan.

How it Works

Advocates call 1-800-GENOCIDE where they are asked to enter their zip code information. The caller is then presented with connection choices based upon their zip code, including the offices of their U.S. Representative, U.S. Senators and the White House. Once a selection is made, the caller receives customized talking points before being connected through to the elected official’s office. Callers can also be patched through to GI-NET if they have any questions or would like more information.

I’ve tried the hotline myself and would like to note that calls should be made during business hours in order to input zip code or other information. I called after hours and was just encouraged to visit the GI-NET website. This is something you could share with your classes— students could call on a walk to class. It’s an important tool that we should all know about.

Feel free to continue sharing your own blog topic interests and events by e-mailing . I’ll do my best to be responsive. I look forward to your suggestions!


The pathways of human destruction upon the land and its resulting impacts of hunger, devastation and poverty are like flickering images in the mind: bodies swimming through piles of trash, steam rising from an electronic waste site in Ghana a stone’s throw away from where vegetables are being sold,  starved, bone-jutting hunger of refugees, and IDPs in the wake of conflict.

I believe that no matter how much under debate the connections of environmental sustainability and human rights are, our hearts see the connection with aching clarity.

In 2012, I took a course that was developed by a partnership between the United Nations Environment Programme and the Environic Foundation International (EFI). The title of the course, taken independently under Dr. Joe Vacek, was entitled Sustainable Societies Africa. According to the EFI, the course “explores the broad range of the most critical social, economic and environmental challenges in Africa and develops students’ abilities to design and introduce strategies to address the problems in their local communities.” Using the framework developed for Sustainable Societies Africa, EFI has subsequently developed other courses that explore the same issues at various scales and for various regions.  These now include: Global Sustainable Societies; Sustainable Societies for Businesses, Sustainable Societies – James River Basin and, , Sustainable Societies–Great Plains.

I am sharing this with my readers because I believe in the course. I believe what it teaches. And I believe it makes a substantial contribution toward understanding the reality of human rights in our own lives. The class I took is a course you can take. You’ll just need either to find a professor who would be willing to oversee an independent project or speak to a department about offering the course.

I found it so intriguing that some of the solutions listed actually make the most sense in terms of both better environmental management and economics. One example of this is nature-based tourism in Madagascar. Effective management of a protected area network in Madagascar would cost approximately US$18 million annually in management but would generate more than US $20 million annually in net local benefits from nature-based tourism, watershed production, and direct payments for biodiversity conservation. (Nature-based tourism tends to be labor intensive, and in the context of the high unemployment rates, this is a significant development plus). It is further noted that local control of land has a much more positive effect on the environment. I call on the example of Namibia for this one where establishment of conservancies is among the most successful methods for developing nations to decentralize natural resource management and simultaneously combat poverty. In Tanzania, where I lived for a semester, our professor on climate change, law, and policy explained that local tribes have rights to claim the land they live on for sustenance. Unfortunately, lack of knowledge on this legal capability often denies individuals of their rights. Rather, the land is purchased by individuals not present and used for financial gain.

The facts you’ll gain and become conversant with are wide in breadth and depth. I’ll share two of my favorite examples from the course:

  • A direct causality, for example, has been made between malaria–or “man-made malaria” as specialists call it–and deteriorating ecosystems. The disease is known to flare up in ecological conditions which have their regulation component altered by irrigation projects, dams, construction sites, standing water and poorly drained areas.
  • World Water’s Council Report on sustaining water: In 1950, it was 12 countries with 20 million people facing water shortage. In 1990, 26 countries with 300 million people and its projected that in 2050, it will be as many as 65 countries, 7 billion people, or about 60% of the world’s population.

The course provides a framework that can be utilized to assess issues and develop solutions in a multi-disciplinary manner. The methodology is practical. Students gain experience with devastating facts and statistics. They are challenged and, ultimately, develop their own case study strategies and applications.

For the human rights field, this is a critical addition to the pedagogy we have been offered. It offers an added lens that is an important professional development tool upon graduation. I highly enrolling in the course and taking advantage of this world-class educational opportunity from the UNEP and Environic Foundation International — available with your initiative from the University of North Dakota. 

Clarinda Solberg Photo for CHRGS Blog

Welcome to the Northern Plains Human Rights Blog, a new project of  the University of North Dakota Center for Human Rights and Genocide Studies (CHRGS)! For my first post, I thought I would tell you a little about me – the author – and how working for CHRGS helped get me to where I am today.

I work as a Youth Programming Coordinator in a community center serving east African immigrants. Many of my students come to the US as refugees and face the unfortunate predicament of being too old for the grade level in which they are placed. Putting them at a higher grade level may make it even more difficult for them to do well in school. However, due to their age, the system may force them out of public education before they are able to graduate. For example, a typical situation may involve  a 19-year-old student in 10th grade, getting A’s but only allowed to complete the 11th grade. Since s/he will reach twenty-one before the senior year, s/he would have to pass a twelfth grade MCA test during the junior year. This is assuming the student passes the first time – a real struggle when one hasn’t taken an entire academic year of material that makes up the exam.

Another typical obstacle may be a student, struggling in English and coming to me with a study guide on cell biology or rock formations. The student tries hard in school but the system seems to set him/her up to fail. The student is stressed about the material and the following day’s exam.

In these cases, my job is to advocate for the students and their families. I establish contact with both the teachers and the families and find out what options are available. In some cases, I identify global community needs  and try to find the resources to establish  programs to satisfy those needs. The students at the Center have a range of stresses and pressures – balancing traditions at home and assimilation in the schools,  prejudices and racism, falling behind in school and perhaps being the contact person to translate for their families. A support group for these students has been established  in recognition that targeted academic assistance is not the only way to improve test scores and college attendance rates.  We are taking a comprehensive approach to these problems and we have other programs underway too.  I feel we can make an important difference in the lives of these students.

More specifically, to help these talented students realize their full potential, my job is to work with non-profits such as Girl and Boys Scouts, United Way,  the Boys and Girls Club of America, universities, businesses, teachers, professors, and other community resources. I supervise interns, work study students, and many dozens  of volunteers of different stripes. I work with families and community leaders. My workplace is not only my office – it’s a home to many. Each day as I walk up the steps to work, I imagine someone lugging home groceries after a long day, exhausted and feeling the relief of making it home. It’s an amazing feeling. If I step outside my office, I can greet people in multiple languages as they send their children off to school. It’s truly an amazing experience! I’m part of something much bigger than myself in a community I respect and love.

In 2012, I received a B.A. in International Studies with a focus in African Studies. All of the responsibilities I just described – they are part of my very first job out of college. How did I land such an amazing opportunity as my first job?  Well, I certainly have the Center for Human Rights and Genocide Studies  to thank.

At CHRGS, I served as an intern for two years. Honestly, it still amazes me the level of confidence the Center had in me and the resultant level of responsibility I was given.  I have an amazing board of professors and the Director to thank for having such confidence in me.  This allowed me to take my passion and dreams for the Center and harness them in realizing some fantastic goals.  The mayor, the UND President, the editor-in-chief of the Grand Forks Herald, staff at the local National Public Radio station – they all knew me. I could e-mail or call them up without hesitation. And in fact many of their numbers were practically on speed dial on my personal cell phone. It wasn’t just community leaders with whom  I had contact,  however; I had the amazing opportunity of collaborating with world-class scholars and artists brought in by the Center: Jolanta Samuolyte  a human rights attorney and activist  from Lithuania; Claudia Stevens, the daughter of Holocaust survivors who put on a one-woman play about a woman who survived Auschwitz by playing in an orchestra; and Dr. James D. Boys, a British expert on the American political system who serves as one of the BBC’s top analysts.  The papers he wrote on the UND campus under the sponsorship of the Center enlightened me regarding issues such as the American response to the Rwandan genocide and the political science implications of fighting the war on terrorism.  I appreciated the incredible access I had to these experts but I also benefited greatly from learning through their papers and public lectures. What a privilege to have this be part of my undergraduate education!

It was as if a quote by Mia Coutu had come true: “I [didn’t] just have dreams. I [was] dreamable.” I also appreciated the professional responsibilities I had working directly with the Center’s Advisory Board and its Director.  I coordinated Board meetings, prepared itineraries for experts  from around the world visiting  the University of North Dakota  at CHRGS’s invitation, created preview summaries of lectures and panel discussions, trained other interns, and made sure that everything ran smoothly. It was amazing to have a Director  who put so much into mentoring me, understood how much I really contributed to the Center (which I truly can’t put into words) and genuinely appreciated my role within the organization. He gave me both professional and academic guidance.  And he helped me grow as a person.  Without him, I would not have been able to secure an internship with a branch of Amnesty International, an opportunity I ended up having to turn down. Thanks to his introduction and guidance, I visited a past student of his in Tanzania where she was working with the International Criminal Tribunal  for Rwanda and was able to  sit in on court proceedings related to the Rwandan genocide. I wrote a chapter of a book to be published, a senior honors thesis on genocide, and developed very strong references with the CHRGS Board members from whom I took multiple classes.

Most of all, thanks to CHRGS, I found my niche in  college and it has helped me to find my niche after graduation as well. My internship with CHRGS was a life-changing experience for me.  My goal was to work hard and I did.  It provided me with an incredible path for a future in the “real world”. Without this internship, I don’t know if I would have been prepared for the position I now hold post-graduation. I don’t even know if I would have gotten this job — the interview would certainly have gone  much differently! Because of the experience and skills I gained from the Center for Human Rights and Genocide Studies,  I am now a proud alumna of the University of North Dakota, holding a job I love but still volunteering for the organization that helped me get to where I am today.

Aside  —  Posted: January 17, 2013 in Uncategorized
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