A crash course in changing the world.
The story of the traditional healers from Oaxaca (mhh… I wonder how this word is pronounced) immediately caught my attention. These healers have struggle for recognition by official associations and the benefits that have accrued to indigenous women are now quantifiable. I found additional information on these awesome healers at http://oaxacatramed.blogspot.com/2010/02/cemito.html.
Reading about these women, I marvel how different yet the same we human beings are and I would like to share a story about encounters of a similar kind in South Africa. In South Africa Sangomas (traditional healers - sometimes called witchdoctors) are revered and trusted in rural communities and play multiple roles as spiritual guide, healer and counselor. Inside a dumba in village in KwaZulu Natal, Miriam Tembe sits on a mat on the floor, staring intently at a small pile of bones on the ground. Strings of beads run around her neck and across her chest, and on her head sits a cap made of leopard skin. The dumba is "where the ancestors live," and it is Miriam’s consulting room. The walls are hung with a traditional healer’s paraphernalia – gourds, animal skins, and a string of teeth. A wooden cupboard with a glass door is packed to capacity with an assortment of tins, bottles and jars full of powders and liquids – Miriam’s pharmacy.
A few feet away, 30-year-old Alfred Nyawo sits quietly on the ground, eyes downcast, waiting for the verdict. After reading the bones, Miriam announces that Nyawo is well. Nevertheless, she pulls on a pair of latex gloves and examines him. True to Miriam’s pronouncement, Nyawo is not unwell; in fact, he is feeling much better today than he was a month ago, when he first come to see her complaining of persistent muscle pains in his shoulders and legs, and frequent headaches. Today he has come back to pay her, and to thank her because he is no longer in pain.
Sangomas are a revered and feared group, and 60% of South Africans consult them nevertheless. Nyawo clearly holds Miriam in high esteem. When he arrived, he first stood quietly at the entrance of her dumba, waiting respectfully for permission to go in. When he was allowed, he entered on his knees, clapped his hands in greeting (a sangoma’s hand is never shaken) and went to sit quietly opposite her. But he does not seem uncomfortable in her presence, and responds easily when she speaks to him. (go here to see a picture of a sangoma at work)
Miriam is one of 80 sangomas in Umkhanyakude District, KwaZulu Natal, taking part in an AMREF programme to enhance management of HIV/Aids, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted infections by developing the knowledge and skills of traditional healers. AMREF wants sangomas to keep providing spiritual succor and basic healthcare, and also to use their influence and authority to promote HIV-testing and modern medicine in areas where many people are distrustful of hospitals, clinics and ARV drugs.
Mexico’s case study looks at how conventional medicine can learn from traditional healers. South Africa’s case study looks at how traditional healers can learn from orthodox healthcare. There are clear synergies between social development and indigenous knowledge.