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Insane? – Better Go to the Local Witch Doctor

Despite the competition from Western medicine, traditional medicine is still much in demand in Africa. That is the result of a study currently being undertaken in Tanzania by the Ethnomedicine Workshop at the University of Bonn’s Institute for the History of Medicine. Particularly for ailments localised in the head – convulsions, dizziness and insanity – those affected tend to turn to a traditional healer rather than someone schooled in Western medicine. Many Africans perceive the neglect of the spiritual dimension of a disease as the most serious deficit of Western medicine.

The ethnomedicine specialist Dr. Walter Bruchhausen has been carrying out a series of interviews in south-eastern Tanzania with members of the different ethnic groups in the region – Wamwera, Wamakua, Wamakonde and Wayao. "The attitudes of the local inhabitants to traditional and Western concepts of health, disease and healing have been previously neglected in the literature," is how Dr. Bruchhausen explains his approach. His interviews focused on the issue of under what circumstances patients consulted a traditional healer and when they seek assistance from a hospital. "What emerged was that all the symptoms which are localised in the head – epilepsy, dizziness or insanity – tended to result in patients resorting to traditional medicine," is his summary of his findings. "However, with illnesses which obviously necessitate an operation to be urgently undertaken – especially obstetric complications – patients go to hospital wherever possible. In the treatment of venereal diseases opinions are divided."

For people in Tanzania there is a clear distinction between ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’, ‘native’ and ‘European’ medicine. However, when these classifications are scrutinised more closely, this distinction becomes more blurred, just as it does in large areas of European ‘alternative medicine’. Since the 1930s ‘traditional’ healers have been building their own practices and cottage hospitals for their patients; they also use tablets from the chemist’s and long for scientific study of their stock of medicinal plants, which would enable more reliable dosages to be made. And even a psychiatrist trained at university recommends that demonomania should be treated by a blessing and prayers given by the hospital chaplain.

"In fact, many Africans see the neglect of the spiritual and social dimension as the greatest deficit of European medicine," Dr. Bruchhausen points out. "Patients are keen to take advantage of examinations, medication, operations. But because patients frequently feel that they only treat the symptoms and the effects, but not the real causes of illness, other experts need to be consulted." The real causes are then often sorcerers or the angry spirits of ancestors. "If, for example, the illness was caused by spirits, exorcist prayer rituals or nights of drumming and dancing are needed to cure the patient." An exhibition on the history of the health care system in Tanzania will be opening in Bonn shortly.

Bonn, Universitaet. April 2002.

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