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African medical traditions

In Africa around 80% of people use traditional medical systems for much or all of their health care. It is impossible to summarise the diversity of traditions used by the many cultures. Local traditions have grown and changed over thousands of years in response to culture, religion and migration. The influence of Islamic medicine can be seen in many traditions, particularly in north Africa. From the 1500s medical knowledge passed with enslaved Africans to the Americas for many centuries. Inoculation came to North America through an enslaved man called Onesimus.

Despite their diversity, many African traditions share characteristics which distinguish them from biomedicine. For instance, spiritual and physical aspects of the body are equally important to health. Causes of illness include spirit-world intervention, or family or community conflict. The whole community is involved in treating illness. Treatment is through medicines, physical treatments or divination by the traditional healer. In divination, ancestors are asked to reveal the meaning of an illness and ways to resolve it. Diviners may suggest a ceremony in which the community sings, dances and performs rituals together.

Healing knowledge is passed down verbally from generation to generation, frequently through stories. Knowledge about plants or medicine was often secret, and only passed to the next generation of practitioners. Today there are organisations such as the International Development Research Centre, which works with traditional healers, scientific researchers and governments to integrate traditional medicine into public health.

Traditional African remedies are a rich source of potential medicines. They have sometimes been turned into pharmaceutical products. Bioprospecting, or looking for chemically active substances in traditional remedies, is an ongoing, controversial process.

Sub-Saharan Africa has been hit hardest by the AIDS epidemic. Consequently it gets lots of biomedical attention. A better understanding of local African medical traditions has helped design prevention programmes and treatments that make sense to ordinary people. These are more likely to save lives.

 

Bibliography

G M Waite, A history of traditional medicine and health care in pre-colonial East-Central Africa (New York: E. Mellen Press, c1992)

S Feierman and J M Janzen, (eds), The social basis of health and healing in Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).

J M Janzen, Ngoma: discourses of healing in central and southern Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992)

Glossary:

Aids

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is a disease caused by infections resulting from a weakened immune system due to the HIV virus. It leads to failure of the immune system and is usually fatal. It is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids.