Traditional African Healing

Published on 20th February 2012

A sea of humanity troops to Loliondo in Tanzania for herbal treatment. Photo courtesy                         

"Religion is a bottle with a label on it, sprituality is the thing inside. Religion is simply the culture of spiritual belief."  Alik Shahadah

It is impossible to separate African religion from traditional African healing for it is African theology that attempts to explain illness and disease.

Traditional African healers (diviners, medicine men, herbalists etc) are often priests, priestesses, or high priests.

Within different African cultures, healers are called by different names, for instance in Zulu, they are called Inyanga, while in other parts of Africa they may be referred to as Sangoma, Bwiti ceremonies are lead by spiritual leaders called N'ganga. Oftentimes it is required to be initiated into secret societies prior to obtaining an education in medicine as many aspects of African medicine can only be communicated to initiates. Knowledge is passed orally through generations and is made up of both scientific and subjective disciplines. Initiated healers access the invisible realm to gain insight into the matter at hand. Invisible does not mean simply means that it is invisible because many subtle aspects of everyday reality are not looked for except with disciplined investigation. Similar to the way we flip a switch and our lights come on, to a trained electrician, the unseen is no mystery. But to those of us who are untrained it works like magic. Perhaps this is why traditional African healing was called witchcraft by outsiders.

Traditional African healing is an holistic approach to medicine based on the premise of interconnectedness. Disease is understood to be a misalignment or spiritual/social disorder either internal or external. It is believed that all people are made up of many levels of being which function together as a whole; moral, social, physical and spiritual, and if any of these parts are out of balance, the person will become physically ill (dis-eased) or suffer spiritually. Using myriad forms of diagnosis such as questioning, observation and touching (still used today in western methods) as well as divination and dream interpretation to name a is the role of the physician to re-align the patient with the origin of the influences so as to re-balance the disorder (dis-order). Forms of treatment include but are not limited to; surgery, dietary therapy, herbalism, psychotherapy, aromatherapy, exorcism, rituals and sacrifice. African healing is influenced by natural cycles of days, seasons and natural occurrences and the accepted realities of the physician. African culture acknowledges that real healing lies, not in a synthetic pill but in recognition of our true position on the earth and in bringing our actions into respectful balance with the natural world.

Origins of African Healing Tradition

Every region, at one time in its history had a form of traditional medicine (Chinese and Arabic as examples). It is traditional because it is deeply rooted in a specific social-cultural context. It is now common knowledge that Kemet gave the gift of medical sciences to the world. The oldest written medical literature (named after the men who found them; called Papyrus Ebers and Smith papyrus) date back thousands of years before the Greek or Roman empires, and are in fact copies of much older writings from Egypt. The papers are now located at the New York Academy of Medicine and are the foundation of western medicine. These papyrus papers include instructions on using the natural forces of nature to cure dis-ease of the body and mind, pathology, anatomy, herbal pharmacology as well as various methods of diagnosing ailments and the locations and functions of all bodily organs.

Scientific evidence places Imhotep firmly at the forefront of medicine as the first known physician, medical professor and writer of medical books (Imhotep was also a priest along with a myriad other roles in Kmt [Ancient Egypt]). He is believed to be the author of the “Edwin Smith” Papyrus in which more than 90 anatomical terms and 48 injuries are described. Imhotep diagnosed and treated over 200 diseases including tuberculosis, gallstones, appendicitis, gout and arthritis. As the worlds first herbalist, he extracted medicine from plants and from the quote “Let your food be your medicine and your medicine your food” we can deduce that Imhotep was a practitioner of dietetics; the science of diet and nutrition.. He also performed surgery and practiced some dentistry. All of these things happened some 2,200 years before the father of western medicine, Hippocrates (who did his internship in ancient Ethiopia under the direction of African physicians) was born.

The designs for many of the medical and surgical instruments of ancient Egypt, such as surgical blades, scissors and forceps are nearly unchanged since African ancients first gave this knowledge to the world and approximately 50% of the plants used in Pharaonic medicine remain in clinical use today both by traditional healers and western trained physicians. Egyptians introduced the use of essential oils and resins and were the first to recognize that stress could contribute to illness. Thus, sanitariums where the people could go for dream therapy and treatment with healing waters were established. Many Egyptian practices for treating illness are still valid medical protocol even today.

So respected was the knowledge of Imhotep that later scribes regularly poured libation to him, devotees brought offerings to his medical and spiritual school in Saqqara in hopes of being healed and he was later even worshiped by the early Christians as one with Christ. So much so, that Christ was made to adopt one of the titles of Imhotep, “Prince of Peace”. Additionally, in Greece he was identified with their god of medicine, Aspelius and was inscribed on the walls of Roman temples, a sign of honor and praise.

Traditional Healers vs. Western Medicine

Given the Egyptian history of medicine in the world, it seems a quagmire that relative new-comers to the medical field would have the audacity to present traditional medicine as primitive. However, it is a fact that during colonial rule traditional healers were viewed as pagan superstitious heathens using unscientific methods....and, in an effort of control went so far as to send diviners and healers to camps to be “re-educated” as well as declaring the sale of herbal medicines illegal. In addition, despite their ability to tend to the basic health needs of the people, traditional healers were largely ignored and/or attempts were made to discredit them, since Healers are more likely to call on the supernatural realm in times of conflict and war. The hypocrisy is even more evident when it is understood that today the herbal trade market in Durban alone is said to attract between 700,000 and 900,000 traders a year. Another example is the 2,000 metric tons in Cameroon and another 600 tons from Madagascar of pygeum (to name just one herb) harvested each year, an ancient treatment for an enlarged prostate and sent to Europe since the 1970's! Africans have a proven history of treating illness and many of the ancient remedies remain in use today, although the active component in many cases is now produced synthetically.

It is easy to understand African cynicism and suspicion towards western medicine philosophy when one understands the history of colonialism. Couple this with the multitude of western doctors who have intentionally (and factually) caused harm—and gone unpunished-- to countless African families. To name a few; the Bulgarian doctors who intentionally infected 100's of Libyan children with H.I.V, Werner Bezwoda who conducted experiments using very high doses of chemotherapy on unsuspecting South African breast cancer patients, Richard McGown who in Zimbabwe killed at least 7 infant patients with lethal doses of morphine, “Dr.” Michael Swango who is suspected of causing the deaths of over 60 Africans with lethal doses of potassium and finally Wouter Basson, a former head of Project Coast (South Africa's chemical and biological weapons unit under Apartheid) who was charged with killing hundreds of Africans via injected poisons but was never convicted. It should also be noted, that during the trial of Basson, at which his lieutenants testified to the medical crimes conducted against African people, it was also reported that one of their chief goals was to find ways to selectively and secretly sterilize Africans.

There appears a clash in methodology and world-view when studying the differences between traditional African healing vs. Western methods (meta-physical vs. crisis intervention). Well educated traditional healers are the preferred option for African patients because of their shared belief systems, and because they offer personalized information, counseling and treatment based on an understanding of their environment. Yet even today, medical apartheid rears its head as traditional healers are rarely included in key decision making, action agendas and community program discussions held by colonizers. Not only is this behavior arrogant, but the continued failure to engage manifests the image of the west as aggressive and perpetuates the view that the goal of colonialism is to erase indigenous peoples thoughts and perceptions of their own culture. Surely the west has many useful medical advancements that Africans can learn from, but their current overpowering role makes reciprocity nearly impossible. Traditional healers have a crucial role to play in the continued growth of the health system on the Continent, the only acceptable solution to this conundrum is African agency.


The term “muti” finds it's roots in the Zulu word for 'tree' and it's use is widespread in African languages, it has been used as a slang term to refer to traditional African medicine. Traditional African medicine makes use of many spiritually curative medicines which contain nothing more sinister than botanical properties, minerals and zoological composed formulas. These medicines have been used to treat everything from headaches to kidney disease to high blood pressure and even sexual potency. Many plant medicines recommended by traditional healers have proven correct when judged by western scientific methods. In fact, the global demand for African traditional medicines is increasing and with that increase is putting pressure on medicinal plant resources.

Muti killings” (also called muthi killings or medicine murder) are instances of murder and mutilation in order to harvest body parts for incorporation as ingredients into medicine. They are not human sacrifice, nor are they religious in nature. The victims, often very young or elderly (male or female) are most often killed for their soft tissue; eyelids, lips, scrota and labia though entire limbs have been severed; many while the victims are still alive since their screams are supposed to enhance the medicines power. It is said to be believed that medicines made from these killings will increase ones ability to excel in business or politics, improve agriculture or protect against war.

Though it is difficult to find precise statistics on muti killings, the earliest documentation appears to be in the 1800's with an increase in incidences occurring during times of economic and political stress. This is observable during the 1990's when South Africa was experiencing significant political strife (legal end of apartheid), at this time opportunistic assassinations of political opponents were deemed muti killings. Many believe that these killings were, at least in some instances, politically sanctioned at the local level. Mutilation of corpses in medical facilities has also been attributed to muti.

While the western propaganda machine would lead those who don't know to believe that African traditional healers are practitioners of witchcraft, it is important to note that African belief does not encourage or condone witchcraft, it merely accepts that witchcraft exists in Africa; the same way that a particular religion does not support or condone adultery, but must accept that some of it's practitioners partake in it. As in any religion, people set up their own concept of what it means to live in harmony with their philosophy and find ways to excuse their evil. This is evident in religions around the world; the Pope who blessed the soldiers that Mussolini sent into Ethiopia to slaughter Africans for their land and Columbus to perform genocide on the Native Americans and Indians on the Caribbean Islands, Israel taking Palestinian land and placing people in refugee camps because God says it's their land etc. African religion is no exception, and it is possible if one goes looking to find unethical and unsavory behavior. However, it is important to understand that making a connection between muti killings and African traditional healing is the exception to the rule, especially since the employment of a traditional healer is not always necessary.

As with all things traditionally African, we must learn from the past, build on it and carry it forward for continued growth. Keeping in mind that with the introduction of commerce in the form of paper money, many of these traditions have been corrupted and there is no shortage of characters who will take advantage of believers by claiming to have the power to heal or fend off spiritual attacks.

By Tasha Davis

The African Holocaust

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