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”