Healing a Diverse Nation

19 Nov

Samson Mvubu picks up samples of a plant and rolls them around in his hand. He talks with confidence about the role of traditional healers in modern society as he shows off his medicinal wares.

He points to the rows of plants, herbs and roots stacked up neatly against the walls of his shop, and to the pathways in between his wares. “Do you see how clean it is?” he asks.

Mvubu is co-founder of Ubuhle Bengonyame, roughly translated as ‘beauty of a lion’. This traditional healer organisation trains healers in areas of “health diagnosis, biology, traditional medicine, HIV / AIDS, culture and home based care”. A traditional healer since 1959, Mvubu travels the country to provide training to healers at a nominal sum – R170 for five days of training, including accommodation and food. Mvubu also runs a practise and supplies patients at his store at the Faraday Traditional Healers Market.

Mvubu says that Ubuhle Bengonyame‘s goal is to ensure traditional healers adhere to standards of cleanliness and professionalism. Mvubu also works with nurses at local clinics, consulting on whether patients would benefit more from Western or traditional medicine – or both.

Mvubu says that the main difference between the two types of treatment and care are “obvious”. According to Mvubu, western medicine works with chemicals and suppresses sickness. African medicine on the other hand works with herbs “and takes sickness out [of the body]”

Mvubu wishes that the two different ways of healing could “come together”, and that Western and African healers could share knowledge. His partnership with nurses at the local clinic extends to sharing information on plants and herbs and their medicinal value. But Mvubu feels that Western doctors are hesitant to share their knowledge with traditional healers, forgetting that they also went through training and ceremonies to qualify as healers.

There are a number of Western doctors studying the scientific merits of African traditional healing. The University of the Witwatersrand’s Pharmocology Department has been researching the medicinal value of African plants since 2002.

The South African Traditional Medicines Research Unit was established in 1997. The group is a research hub for the South African Medical Research Council, the University of Cape Town’s Medical School, the School of Pharmacy at the University of the Western Cape and the World Health Organisation. The Group tries to set standards that define the “identity, purity and potency” of different medicines.The University of the KwaZulu-Natal’s Nelson Mandela School of Medicine has has also worked with traditional healers, particularly in the management of HIV/AIDS.

On the September 6, 2007 – African Traditional Medicine Day – Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang spoke to traditional healers in Limpopo. The Minister said that the stigmatisation of traditional healing practises is “a deliberate effort to undermine traditional medicine.” The practise of traditional healing should be developed and recognised, as well as “mainstreamed”. She said: “…we are not going to fail your expectations and those of the millions of people who are dependent on you for health and indeed life.”

Vodpod videos no longer available.
A video of a tourist’s visit to a traditional healer in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. In the video you can see the various herbs, powders and plants that populate a traditional healer’s store.

Mvubu is happy that research is being conducted into the medicinal value of African herbs, plants, roots and oils for Western medicine. But he says that it would fulfil one of his dreams if he could speak to the people involved in the research to “spread knowledge about the importance of taking traditional medicine to help against [sickness].”

But his major concern is “that a person gets healed – it doesn’t matter if that’s done by traditional or Western medicine.”

More information:

For an in depth look at traditional healers and their role in African society, watch the two part series Sangoma. Al – Jazeera programme ‘Witness’ produced the series, which looks at the debate between “conventional and alternative medicine” in South Africa, and the government’s role in regulation of healing practices.

Listen to William Folk, Professor of Biochemistry, talk about the University of Missouri – Columbia’s collaboration with universities in South Africa in the study of traditional / alternative healing practices. This cross – continential collaboration tries to create a “virtual center that seeks to understand traditional healing practices in South Africa”.

For more audio clips and information on the project, visit SyndicateMizzou’s “Bridging Medical Systems“.


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