Although many scholars and scientists continue to discredit it as obsolete and dangerous, traditional African medicine still remains very popular in many African communities, with the World Health Organization (WHO) estimating that at least 80 percent of the African population relies on traditional medicine for primary health care.
The organization further reports that at least 60 percent of children suffering from high-grade fever and other serious infections, such as malaria, in Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, and Zambia are given herbal medicine at home as the first form of treatment.
But for the sake of clarity, it is important to note that traditional African medicine is not the same as Black magic or witchcraft; traditional medicines are administered by a traditional healer, also known as a herbalist, while witchcraft is practiced by a witch doctor.
With the majority of African films portraying traditional African herbalists as witch doctors, with powers to cast spells and perform other acts of superstition, many have understandably become suspicious of these healers.
However, the truth is that there is more to traditional medicine than mere superstition. In fact, this indigenous form of treatment is slowly gaining popularity over conventional medicine, popularly known by Africans as “Western medicine.”
Why Traditional Medicine?
In a continent that is yet to fully recover from colonialism, it is ironic to see people preferring traditional medicine over modern forms of treatment.
In South Africa, for example, some professional medical doctors have resorted to combining modern medicine with traditional African medicine due to the increasing popularity of the latter.
And in other parts of Africa, professional doctors often refer their patients to traditional healers when conventional medicine fails.
But why is this?
To begin with, traditional African medicine is said to offer a holistic approach to healing, which is usually based on the belief that all aspects of human life (including physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects) ought to work harmoniously.
Traditional African healers believe that illness is often the result of physical, emotional, or spiritual disorder. That’s why their mode of treatment involves tapping in to the patient’s physical, spiritual, moral, and social components.
The traditional healing process therefore involves the use of special herbs and paraphernalia — along with strange incarnations and rituals — to enable the traditional healer to consult with the ancestors about the patient.
In order to perform these rituals, the healer needs special powers that are acquired at birth. They also need to have special knowledge of spirits and gods, occult arts, sacrifices, charms, and healing herbs.
Some scholars believe that traditional African medicine is gaining dominance over modern medicine because it is readily available, affordable, and does not have any serious side effects.
Others argue that traditional herbs are more effective in treating serious infections. They say indigenous herbs are the reason why people lived long and healthy in the early days.
But even with its growing popularity, many professional medical doctors and researchers have warned against the use of traditional herbs, citing lack of clinical evidence and knowledge to administer appropriate dosages.