The 31st August marks a very important day for the medical sector, specifically those practicing in traditional medicine. This date marks almost twenty years since the 50th World Health Organisation (WHO) African Region Office met in Ouagadougou in 2001 where African Health Ministers took a decision to celebrate African Traditional Medicine on the 31st August of each year. This step, although delayed was a re-enforcement of the WHO’s Alma-Ata declaration of its 1978 Primary Health Care conference that recognised the role of traditional practitioners to work as a part of the health team and to respond to health needs of the community (WHO Alma-Ata Declaration VII, section 7).
It is important to recognise that while the international community acknowledged traditional medicine only in the 18th century, the history of traditional medicine goes far beyond this. Many generations have passed through our indigenous healing practices and medicines. Before colonialism in South Africa, African people of all tribal groups relied on traditional medicines and myths around traditional practices were not pronounced.
It is therefore very important that we recognise how colonialism not only fragmented our society, but also our culture and identity. The infiltration of the West in Africa has significantly delegitimised African culture, and our traditional medicine. It has also successfully undermined and oppressed the practice and practitioners, presenting it as witchcraft and having no place in modern society.
Approximately 80% of Africa's population is dependent on traditional medicine for their basic health needs. Considering that Africa has a significantly rural population, in many cases traditional medicine is the only healthcare service that is easily accessible and affordable. This reality alone is enough to make the point that there is a wealth of knowledge that African traditional medicine can contribute to existing health systems not only in Africa, but globally as well.
Within the medical discipline in general, there is a notable shift towards spirituality, including the use of organic and herbal medicines. Researchers, Scientists and medical practitioners in different parts of the world are going back to nature to source solutions for some of the most complex medical illnesses and diseases.
The important question to ask however is, ‘How much voice indigenous traditional practitioners have in this shifting discourse?’ It is important that the traditional medicine fraternity talks about how they can protect their knowledge systems, while advancing medicine and practice such that it makes contributions to the health sector. There is a need for an advancement, and normalisation of traditional practices and systems especially as it relates to societal perceptions around the credibility and capacity of traditional medicines to heal and remedy illnesses.
The key thing in this respect is to de-colonise the thinking around healthcare and also elevate African traditional medicines within academic and Health Science discussions. The call for an integration of African medicine into the Health Sciences curriculum in the African region is one that is important and overdue.
The fixation on western medical practices deprives us the opportunity to explore the potential that exists in traditional medicine. This fixation also restricts innovation and narrows the understanding of disease – it’s distribution, control and other factors relating to health.
As the government of this country we support, and firmly believe that traditional medicine has a role to play in strengthening our provision of primary health care. This is anchored in the understanding that Africa has capacity to develop African solutions to its problems.
We also acknowledge that the integration of traditional practices in the academy can offer an opportunity for us to develop an African understanding of the mental health phenomenon which is fast becoming an epidemic. An integrated approach to addressing some of the major health challenges such as this is critical and must include a strong voice from all traditional practitioners.
As Traditional Medicine Practitioners in South Africa, it is therefore important to deliberate about the role that traditional medicine plays in our current healthcare system, and also about the new perspectives and approaches to treatment and care that you could bring to health care, especially in the public health system.
At the centre of this is also, a discussion about what processes need to unfold in order to integrate traditional practices into the health sector. This is a discussion that includes ways of identifying and establishing a set of norms and standards that can be used to regulate and ensure that quality health services are being provided to the public.
It is not a secret that the traditional medicine fraternity is also delegitimised by some who undermine human rights and participate in criminal activity under the banner of traditional practices. Setting up proper regulatory systems will be important to differentiate criminals from legitimate healers. This must as such form part of the discussions on curriculum development and upholding ethics in medicine.
I know that other traditional practitioner groups will soon come knocking on our doors complaining about preferential treatment that some enjoy over others. I must be honest and say that - this kind of fragmentation does not assist the call to integrate traditional medicine into mainstream health care discourse.
Traditional practitioners should consolidate themselves and form a united front towards the integration of traditional medicine into the health curriculum and health system as a whole. It is important that they take lessons from the book of South African history, that tells us that because of the division sown among South African tribes by the coloniser, today we are still engaging in a programme of bringing back land to its original owners. It would be a shame for traditional medicine to lose its originality, and ownership by Africans because of failure to unite as practitioners.
The integration of traditional practices and medicines into mainstream health care will require that traditional practitioners are united in voice on health issues including how as a country we should wage a war on diseases that are destroying our nation. The voice of traditional medicine is important and should not be ignored or silenced.
The celebration of the African Traditional Medicine Day marks an important milestone in the long journey travelled towards realising the formal recognition and institutionalisation of African Traditional Medicine. We have a long way to go in transforming our healthcare.
By Dr. Bandile Masuku
MEC for Health in Gauteng, South Africa.