African Traditional MedicineThe medicines of Africa are vast in scope, so a comprehensive survey would be much too ambitious a project for this section. However, we hope to at least give an insight into African medical phylosophy. Traditional African medicine is a holistic discipline involving extensive use of indigenous herbalism combined with aspects of African spirituality.

Most traditional African cultures believe that disease is caused by the malevolence of witches, sorcerers or evil ancestors, and medicinal healers are therefore a spiritual focus in the community. Disease and misfortune are Religious experiences, Gods punishment for wrong deeds. Illness is caused by spirits, another person, or God, for mischief or misdeeds. Health and illness are balances in conflicting forces of ancestors, or other living people. Mental disease is caused by spirits and witchcraft. Illness is caused by ill will or ill action of one person against another.

Treatment is both Spiritual and Physical within tribal customs and traditions. There are about 3,000 African Tribes, each with its own religious system which governs economics, education, and health care. Religion is the greatest influence upon thinking and living.

African Healing Systems revolve around secrecy, knowledge is an index of Power and Influence.


Man: those alive and those about to be born.

Time / present and past. No true vocabulary for long term future, 2 weeks to 2 months at most. Events

African Traditional Healers-The Medicine Man (Waganga) Swahili

Disease is avoided by observing taboos, wearing-amulets, giving offerings to beneficent ancestors or by ritual dancing. This spiritual approach is backed up by the use of the local flora by herbal­ists, although the herbal drugs are often thought to be more effective when used in conjunction with charms and chants.

Practitioners of traditional African medicine claim to be able to cure a wide range of conditions, including cancers, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), psychiatric disorders, high blood pressure, cholera, infertility, and most venereal diseases. Other applications include epilepsy, asthma, eczema, hayfever, anxiety, depression, benign prostatic hypertrophy, urinary tract infections, gout, and healing of wounds and burns.

Traditional African medicine involves diviners, midwives, and herbalists. Diviners are responsible for determining the cause of illness, which in some causes are believed to stem from ancestral spirits and other influences. Traditional midwives make extensive use of indigenous plants to aid childbirth.

As long as Africans see illness as a religious experience, the Medicine Man will be the most revered body of knowledge next to the chief of the village. He or She is the custodian of  the theories of healing, the hope of society. God removes disease with the help of the Medicine Man. The Medicine Man must undergo formal or informal training. He is given medicine to eat to give him power, and prophecy to strengthen his soul. He is initiated into the public by giving witchcraft phlegm to swallow, shown herbs, scrubs, and teas to make medicine.

He learns the cause, cure, prevention of disease, misfortune, bareness, poor crop yield, magic, witchcraft, sorcery, and how to combat or even use them to treat his people. He must find the cause of an illness, find the criminal who sent it, diagnose the nature of the illness, apply the proper treatment, and prevent misfortune from happening again. He must purge witches, detect sorcery, and remove failure from hunting and farming.

African Tribal DoctorHis medicines are made from plants, herbs, powder of bones, seeds,  roots, juices, leaves, and minerals. His treatments may include massage, thorns, bleeding, incantations, needles, ventriloquism, asking for sacrifice of a goat or chicken, or avoiding certain foods. Herbalists are so popular in Africa that an herb trading market in Durban is said to attract between 700,000 and 900,000 traders a year from South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. Smaller herb markets exist in virtually every community.

Some of the plants and herbs used in African Medicine include: Acokanthera oblongifolia, Agapanthus praecox, Artemisia afra, Clivia miniata, Dietes iridioides, Eucomis autumnalis, Eucomis comosa, Gladiolus papilio, Haemanthus albiflos, Lobelia erinus, Ochna serrulata, Olea europaea ssp.africana, Pelargonium alchemilloides, Physalis peruviana, Scadoxus puniceus, Schinus molle, Tulbaghia violacea and Zantedeschia aethiopica to name a few.

Africa has a long and impressive list of medicinal plants based on local knowledge. For instance Securidaca Longepedunculata is a tropical plant found almost everywhere in Africa. The dried bark and root are used in Tanzania as a purgative for nervous system disorders. One cup of root decoction is administered daily for two weeks. Throughout East Africa, the plant’s dried leaves are used for wounds and sores, coughs, venereal disease, and snakebite. In Malawi, the leaves are used for wounds, coughs, bilharzia, venereal disease, and snakebite. The dried leaves in Malawi cure headaches. The dried leaves act on skin diseases in Nigeria. According to one pharmaceutical researcher, the root is used in "Bechuanaland" and "Rhodesia" for malaria while the same part of the plant is used for impotence in "Tanganyika". Meanwhile, in Angola, the dried root is used as both a fish poison and (in botanical testimony to the power of love) as an aphrodisiac. The same dried roots have religious significance in Guinea-Bissau and are understood to have a psychotropic effect. The root bark is used for epilepsy in Ghana.

Local markets are often rich in medicinal plants that are either cultivated or plucked from the wild. South Africa has a par­ticularly strong herbal tradition working alongside the Western medicine of the white population.

The Ifa Medicine of West Africa

Just as in Tibetan medicine, there are aspects of the spiritual tradition of Ifa medicine that may not be communicated to the uninitiated. Nevertheless, as with other traditional medicines, both physicians and patients can learn to understand some of the perspectives that these systems bring to our world view.

The complex herbalism of the West African religious system of Ifa originates with the Yoruba people, who have integrated aspects of Greek, Egyptian, and Arabic traditions. Ifa medicine is a complex and, in the West, largely unexplored subject.

As with most orthodox systems of religion, practitioners of Ifa embed themselves in a complex system of tribal and cultural obligations, which determine not only the view point of the practitioner regarding external phenomenon, but also immutably affirms the connection between human beings and the world around them.

In parallel with Taoism, education in Ifa creates an appreciation that the individual cannot be removed from the matrix of relationships which extend beyond those of humanity and the animal realm. Within this tribal system, the web of influences of natural cycles of the day, season, and phase of life surround the patient. Subtle influences from the plant world and realms of sentient beings, which find their abode in the wind, the earth, the sky, and other places, are accepted realities to the Ifa herbalist and physician.

Disease is primarily understood as a disorder or misalignment of the internal or external milieu of the patient. Part of the role of the physician is to align the patient with the matrix of influences that will rebalance their particular disorder. Sometimes also, a disorder develops as a result of losing or ignoring a relationship with a matrix of influence.

Utilizing non familiar forms of diagnosis, such as divination and dream interpretation, in addition to the traditional format of questioning, observation and touching, the Ifa physician may use familiar techniques of dietary therapy, psychotherapy, surgery, and herbal medicine, but may also perform exorcisms, rituals, sacrifices and other procedures which seem more the province of priests than physicians.

Tribal African Medecine JarIn fact, Ifa physicians are often priests, priestesses, or high priests, or belong to a guild-like society hidden within tribal boundaries, completely secret to the outside world. In Ifa communities, even obtaining an education in medicine may require becoming an initiate of one of these societies.

Central to the tenets of Ifa is the necessity for practitioners to establish a good relationship with the world that we inhabit. Ifa practitioners have faith in a form of reincarnation where the individual repeatedly returns, after death, to greet the earth, while part of that individuals essence always resides in heaven as a spiritual double.

The Ifa concept of fair exchange means also that by greeting the earth with good character, the natural world will welcome us and support us. We will live in harmony with the seasons, environment, and the other inhabitants of the earth. Clearly understood also, is that if we disrespect our environment, abuse and squander the gifts and blessings that we enjoy while on earth, suffering will be the outcome. Living in an honorable path requires that the practitioner develop specific attributes of good character and moral behavior. This entails personal responsibility, a gentle nature, and a humble disposition.

The interest in traditional knowledge is more and more widely recognised in development policies, the media and scientific literature. In Africa, traditional healers and remedies made from plants play an important role in the health of millions of people. The relative ratios of traditional practitioners and university trained doctors in relation to the whole population in African countries are revealing. In Ghana, for example, in Kwahu district, for every traditional practitioner there are 224 people, against one university trained doctor for nearly 21,000 people. The same applies to Swaziland where the ratios are for every traditional healer there are 110 people while for every university trained doctor there are 10,000 people.

Although the main consumers of medicinal plants in Africa have been, until ecently, the local population, the field has started to attract a number of local and foreign researchers (as during the second world war) who have discovered the value of traditional healing. The first undertakings done in this field in Africa were undoubtedly of ethno-botanical nature, but since then the fields of study have expanded to include pharmacology, phytochemistry, and chemistry of natural products, organic synthesis and the usefulness of medicinal and aromatic plants.

The pharmaceutical industry has come to consider traditional medicine as a source for identification of bio-active agents that can to be used in the preparation of synthetic medicine. However, they are not looking to study the rare plant species; they want to test the most commonly-used species. The valuable medicinal plants are those with the longest track record in the most locations. Many of the more pharmacologically (commercially) interesting medicinal plant species in use around the world are employed in more than one community, and often in more than one country, for multiple uses.

Concern has been expressed that increased demand for wild plants used in traditional African medicine is endangering local plant populations. For example, the Washington-based group Future Harvest says that a $220 million annual market for Prunus africana as a prostrate remedy could lead to extinction of the slow-maturing evergreen tree in the African wilds.

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