KAMPALA – Recently, there were social media posts regarding a traditional healer who was arrested by National Drug Authority agents for extorting money from people. He said that he provides a variety of services to his clients, including “Okwooza omusaayi” blood purification services. In this case, one wonders where to begin his arguments.
Traditional medicine is defined as a body of knowledge and practice used to diagnose, prevent, and cure disease. This could be based on previous experience and observations passed down from generation to generation. But, before I appreciate the role of traditional medicine in health care, let me first go through the African concept of illness and sickness.
In traditional African settings, there was always an explanation for why someone was suffering from a particular ailment at a particular time. Diseases are mostly caused by witchcraft/sorcery, gods or ancestors, and can be both natural and inherited.
Illness in African civilization is not the same as it is in allopathic Western medicine. In the 1990s, for example, HIV/AIDS was associated with witchcraft, and the epidemic decimated a large number of people as a result until several socio-behavioral change initiatives were implemented.
Let us now look at the role of traditional medicine in healthcare. Traditional medicine has grown in popularity in Uganda for a variety of reasons, including the fact that many impoverished Ugandans have nowhere else to turn. Traditional healers are frequently the first and last line of defense against the most contagious and debilitating diseases that afflict their communities.
Prohibitive medical costs also make it impossible for the poor to get medical attention. People are opting for traditional healers, who do not always demand cash up front and who far outnumber doctors.
But the problem extends beyond access. Traditional healing is related to larger belief systems and is an important part of most Africans’ lives. People visit traditional healers whether or not they can afford medical services.
Western-trained doctors are primarily concerned with the biomedical causes of disease, whereas traditional beliefs take a more holistic approach. Traditional healers in Uganda are said to be able to divine the source of a person’s ailment or societal problems by throwing bones to interpret the will of deceased ancestors.
In the last decade, the gap between modern and traditional practitioners has decreased slightly. WHO pushes for the incorporation of safe and effective traditional medicine into primary health-care systems. In 2002, the organization produced its first detailed guidelines to assist nations such as Uganda in developing legislation to regulate traditional medicine.
The Ugandan government passed the Traditional and Complementary Medicine Act in 2019. The legislation, among other things, defines traditional and complementary medicine in relation to contemporary medicine and creates a council to supervise and regulate traditional and complementary medicine practice.
However, most healers are not formally recognized by the government. They work outside of traditional health-care structures. However, ignoring traditional healers might have catastrophic implications. Some people may defy their doctor’s advise or take herbal medications that may have harmful interactions with pharmaceuticals if they prefer the healers.
Working with these healers would provide doctors with allies who live in the patient’s community. They can aid in reporting new cases of contagious diseases and ensuring that patients follow their prescribed treatment.
Given the necessary skills and resources, they are well positioned to play a larger role in combating Africa’s primary diseases.
The author, Ivan Munguongeyo is a Commonwealth Youth Correspondent