This guest blog was written by Jeanette Strydom, the relationship officer at Africa Health Placements, a member organization of GHC based in Johannesburg.
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — In South Africa, many people utilize and believe in the strength of traditional healers. There are several types — sangomas (who speak to the ancestors, diviners) or inyangas (herbalists), traditional birth attendants, iingcibi (traditional surgeons) and those who practice one of the various forms of West African voodoo. For centuries, people have obtained medical advice, remedies and cures from these healers for all manner of aliment.
Traditional healing in South Africa is seen as either a holistic or symbolic form of restoring health which is deeply embedded in the beliefs of some cultures. According to Robert Thornton from WITS University in Johannesburg, “Healing is understood by its practitioners to be a profession, not a religion or even a spiritual exercise.” He says that there are “six disciplines — divination, herbs, control of ancestral spirits, the cult of foreign ndzawe spirits, drumming and dancing, and training of new sangomas”.
Traditional healers — sangomas in particular — are highly regarded and can play large social and political roles in their communities. In South Africa, there are currently about 200,000 traditional healers and close to 70% of South Africans consult them. In 2004, the Traditional Health Practitioners Bill was passed by Parliament to ensure that only registered healers are able to practice medicine, and to bar them from the diagnosis or treatment of diseases such as HIV/AIDS and cancer.
South Africa has one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the world with close to 5.7 million people infected – that’s over 10% of the total population. In the population aged 15-49, the rates are as high as 19.7% in women and 17.3% in men (according to Statistics South Africa’s 2010 estimates). It is believed that up to 300,000 South Africans have died of AIDS.
Can traditional healers cure HIV? According to Professor Robert Thornton, a clear distinction needs to be made between the words “cure” and “treat.” There is considerable confusion about this due to the fact that some methods and herbs appear to treat the symptoms of HIV, but not cure the infection itself.
The concept of sexuality needs to be understood in order to stop the spread of HIV and other sexually-transmitted infections. Based on a study done by the Human Sciences Research Council in 2006, in order to to assess the role traditional healers can play in the prevention of HIV infection, it was determined that current measures were not enough to encourage correct behaviours. It was found that most healers had correct knowledge of the major HIV transmission routes (multiple sexual partners, blood contact, reusing needles or razors), prevention methods (condom use), and that antiretroviral treatment has to be taken for life. However, their knowledge was poorer on other HIV transmission routes (breast feeding, oral sex and dry sex), and their overall knowledge of issue was also poor. This is frightening, given that such a large contingent of the population go to traditional healers looking for advice, help and treatment.
According to Marlise Ricther, there is a great need for “traditional healers to have a crucial role to play in the health system in South Africa” and help with “strengthening and supporting the national response to HIV.” Does this mean that traditional healers should be giving out condoms, promoting safe sex and educating patients on the hazards of the virus? Should healers be realistic with the people they treat? Or should they themselves have training on the virus in order to advise their patients in the best way possible?
While a traditional healer is able to strengthen immunities and treat severe symptoms of AIDS with herbal remedies, they are by no means able to cure it. It is imperative that healers convey this to their patients. If an HIV-positive person starts feeling better due to an improved immune system, they are still infected with HIV and need to be aware of their behaviours and adjust them accordingly.
Of the traditional healers contacted for this article, four out of five claim to be able to cure HIV. Not treat – cure. Each of these healers declined to comment when they were told an article was being written. One gentleman who was adamant that his herbal concoction would cure anyone with the virus is based in the very upmarket Johannesburg suburb of Sandton.
If you are interested in working in southern Africa to help combat HIV/AIDS: apply on our website www.ahp.org