SA's traditional healers seek leap to modernity

In the eclectic buzz of Africa’s richest city, where run-down buildings abut sleek mining houses, is a gateway to a centuries-old world of giant tubers, herbs and musty animal parts.

The Faraday medicine market, a stone’s throw from one of Johannesburg’s revamped Soccer World Cup football stadiums, is where South Africans come to seek help for anything from high blood pressure to warding off bad dreams.

It’s a sprawling show of mountains of pounded tree bark, dried lizards, grapefruit-sized plant bulbs, and the occasional zebra hoof—and a place where healers are increasingly trying to bridge the gap with the modern world.

“Most of the people they know about Faraday. It’s a very important place,” said Isaac Molefe, a traditional healer based in Soweto on the outskirts of Johannesburg.

Traditional medicine is big business in South Africa where healthcare is split between pricey, top-notch urban private care and run-down, overstretched state services that cater for most of the 50-million population.

Used by about 27-million South Africans, the annual trade in traditional medicine was tipped in 2007 to be at least R2,9-billion ($397-million) and sustaining some 130 000 jobs.

But it also faces negative stereotypes in a fast-changing South Africa amid quack-like, commercially-driven promises peddled on Johannesburg streets for Aids cures, increases in penis size and quick riches.

The negative connotations stem from ignorance of the efficacy of plant-based medicine, said Mweru Gundidza, a pharmacology professor at South Africa’s top University of the Witwatersrand, which is offering healers a new way of winning “credentials”.

“Traditional medicine was basically the beginning of medicine. Sixty to seventy percent of modern drugs are derived from plants.
It’s just that now they have been extracted, purified, formulated [and] tested,” he said.

Gundidza’s department recently launched its first training for traditional healers in a bid to narrow the divide between the two systems and boost clinical knowledge in diagnosis and prevention.

The approaches taken by the two systems are worlds apart: Western-trained doctors rely on clinical-based diagnosis and treatment, while traditional healers work holistically and often spiritually through belief in ancestors.

“They must work together rather than separately. They must work in tandem to the benefit of the patient,” said Gundidza.

Traditional healers are also excited by the training. Molefe, who specialises in Aids treatment which is being investigated by the country’s premier scientific think-tank, completed Wits’ inaugural two-day course.

“It was wonderful because we gained some other experiences, some theories. We are doing our own things in a traditional way, now if they are coming with the modern things we have to adopt that to combine it with a traditional way.

“We are adopting this modern practice in order to compete with this modern technology.”

Nceba Gqaleni, a professor at the University of KwaZulu Natal, whose school has trained 1 200 healers, said a more transparent system between the two schools was needed to help patients make choices.

“There are fundamental differences. In understanding a patient who comes to a healer, they are not looking for a virus or a sugar [level] that is abnormal.

“They also check you spiritually—they want to restore you, you as a person. Modern medicine would treat the TB bacteria in you, the healers will treat you [as] the whole person.” - AFP

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