Dining With Traditional Healers
Jennifer Page travels to South Africa and meets traditional healers working with AMREF.
The moment our van pulls up to the home of the traditional healer, AMREF staff from around the world can sense there’s magic in the air. It’s dark and rainy, but the glow of the headlights from our vehicle makes it possible to watch the group of young boys, dressed in matching outfits, greet us with a traditional song and dance. To escape the rain, we quickly remove our shoes and step into a hut painted in vivid green, where six traditional healers wearing colorful beads in their hair and around their necks sit barefoot on animal skin rugs.
We are here – in the Umkhanyakude District in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa - to better understand the role of the traditional healers and to learn how the new partnership between AMREF and the healers is helping fight HIV/AIDS, the deadly virus that 1 out of every 9 South Africans is carrying.
Leading Frontline Health Care Workers
The partnership developed 3 years ago out of the realization that 60% of South Africans visit a traditional healer when they are ill. Deeply rooted in their culture, traditional healers are highly respected and trusted for their healing expertise and spiritual powers passed down from their ancestors. With such strong ties within their communities and the power to influence, they are a natural entry-point for health care for AMREF. With AMREF's Project Manager and former nurse translating, the healers tell us how much their practice has changed in recent years. Now they use gloves for examinations, single-use razors and needles, distribute condoms, keep patient records and refer complex and severe cases to hospitals and clinics. In fact, over the span of the project, 1500 clients have been referred to the formal health services for HIV/AIDS voluntary counselling and testing and another 108 clients havebeen referred to hospitals for treatment of tuberculosis.
As we partake in the rituals inside the hut, including bearing witness to the healing ceremony complete with seashells and a whisk made from a cow's tail, eating a freshly slaughtered goat and sipping homemade beer, I am left with a deep respect for their practice and a feeling of pride to be a part of this innovative project. Now, instead of trying to change their century-old role in African communities, the South African Ministry of Health recognizes traditional healers as an integral part of the primary health care team – bridging the gap and diffusing mutual mistrust between the formal and informal system. And without enough doctors, nurses, clinics, and hospitals to cope with the demand for services to care for HIV/AIDS patients, as well as the fact that traditional healers outnumber doctors in Africa by 100 to 1 - they are well placed to play a crucial role in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
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