Tag Archives: western medicine

What prospects for complementary use of African and western systems of medicine?

Human societies have, from time immemorial, independently evolved and sustained systems of healing; Africans were not an exception. Despite efforts to suppress indigenous African medicine during and even after the colonial era the practice still thrives throughout the continent. The big question is whether there are prospects for complementary use of western and African medicine?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines traditional medicine as the sum total of knowledge, skills and practices based on the theories, beliefs and experiences indigenous to different cultures that are used to maintain health, as well as to prevent, diagnose, improve or treat physical and mental illnesses. Traditional African medicine and African religion are intricately intertwined; it is through African theology that illness, disease and misfortunes are understood.

Traditional African Medicine is a holistic discipline that embraces the use of herbs, African spirituality (diviner-healers), and traditional midwifery. African spirituality is centred on a belief in a supreme deity above a host of lesser semi-divine figures, including the power and intercession of ancestral spirits.

Normally, every rural African community will have a traditional healer, to whom they go for advice on a variety of issues, including health problems. The traditional healer would be knowledgeable about plant species that have medicinal value, including their ecology and conservation.  

The philosophy underpinning traditional African Medicine differs significantly from that of western medicine. Whilst the latter is based on a system that focuses on identification of a specific disease-causing agent (germ theory), African medicine takes a holistic view. Good health, disease, success or misfortune, are seen as interrelated circumstances, which do not happen by chance but arise from the actions of living individuals or spirits of ancestors. Thus, the practice of traditional African medicine embraces the two mutually reinforcing elements of African spirituality (divination) and the use of herbs (herbal medicine).

Unlike in western medicine where the Hippocratic Oath obliges practitioners to be open with their modalities of treatment, absolute secrecy is what has sustained and protected the knowledge and mystery of traditional African medicine, through the ages. The gathering of medicinal plants is customarily restricted to the healers and their novices only, who normally will not divulge the nature of the plant, its environs and the details of its prescription to clients.

Christian missionaries were the indisputable ushers of western medicine in Africa. European and American missionaries pioneered ‘modern’ medicine in Africa, establishing health facilities deep into the interior way in advance of the colonial medical services.

Dr David Livingstone, the Scottish doctor and traveller, is recognized as the main source of inspiration for the involvement of Christian missions in medical work. His writings between 1851 and 1873 played a significant role in the recognition of medical care as an integral part of missionary activity. As a result, starting in the second half of the nineteenth and during the early twentieth century, mission hospitals, dispensaries and other medical facilities were established in West, East and Southern Africa[1].

Generally, Christianity was initially introduced at the Coast, before the missionaries penetrated the interior. By 1878, the White Sisters (Catholic Missionaries of Africa) had initiated health activities in the regions of the great lakes in East Africa. Among the earliest health facilities in East Africa were the Church Missionary Society (CMS) Hospital at Mengo, Uganda, established by Dr Albert Cook (1870-1951) in 1897, the Church of Scotland Mission (CSM) Hospital at Kikuyu, Kenya, in 1907, and the Africa Inland Mission (AIM) Hospital at Kijabe, Kenya, in 1915.

Mengo Hospital 1897 download

IMAGE: Mengo Hospital 1897

The arrival of the Christian missionaries provoked a cultural confrontation, especially when they completely ignored the existence of African spirituality. Influenced by their strong belief in the superiority of European culture, early missionaries viewed their primary mission to be that of exposing Africans to Western standards and practices, in other words, to ‘civilise the native’. In the mistaken belief that a spiritual vacuum existed in the lives of Africans, ready to be occupied by Western religion, they assumed that whatever forms of religion Africans subscribed to, could easily be supplanted by a superior religion, Christianity. They failed to distinguish between the roles, in the lives of Africans, of traditional culture and practices on the one hand, and of Christianity, on the other.

Professor John S. Mbiti, the pre-eminent African theologian and philosopher, has since exhorted that Christianity cannot afford to neglect, despise or even condemn outright, African traditional religions. Nor should the connection between African traditional practices and Christianity be seen as an “uncomfortable form of compromise”. He observes that in traditional African societies, religion and culture were completely integrated into one holistic way of life so that there was no distinction between what was sacred and what was secular. He advocates that Christianity ought to be viewed as the “fulfilment of that, after which African religiosity, in all its richness, has groped”[2].

Establishment of colonial medical services in East Africa was largely driven by the needs of colonial service officials and the white settlers. This was particularly the case in Kenya where there were numerous, and increasing numbers of Europeans in the so-called ‘white highlands’. Second to be considered were Indian, on whom the colonials looked upon to cater for their needs. Lastly, the meagre services extended to Africans, generally targeted the employees in the colonial administration and labour in white settler farms. As though to absolve themselves of the guilt of not providing for the health needs of African communities, the colonials have been quoted as blaming the preoccupation of the natives with witchcraft: ‘It was almost impossible to administer to a people so thoroughly riddled with witchcraft that no one could do anything with them because they refused to tell anything’!

The earliest government hospital to be established in Kenya (in 1901) was the Native Civil Hospital (NCH), Nairobi. This 40 bed facility provided in-patient services for Africans, while outpatient services were availed at the Government Dispensary which was located along Government Road (now Moi Avenue), close to Kingsway Police Station (today’s Central Police Station). The NCH was the precursor to the King George VI (1952), later renamed, in 1964, the Kenyatta National Hospital.

For the large population of Africans, especially those who lived far from the urban centres where colonial medical health facilities never existed, it mostly fell on missionaries (and/or traditional healers) to provide the much needed health services. Even today church-based hospitals and health care programmes continue to account for 25 percent to 50 percent of available services in most African countries, including Kenya.

Enjoy the best of both worlds? Practitioners of western medicine have over the years, eschewed traditional African medicine dismissing its methods as primitive, superstitious and pagan. Besides herbs, some healers may involve in their treatments, charms, incantations, and the casting of spells (demons); others may employ music and dance as in the case of the Akamba kilumi.

Under colonial rule, traditional diviner-healers were outlawed being considered to be practitioners of witchcraft. Similarly, African religious practices and medicine were labeled sinful by white Christian missionaries, and as such use of traditional medicine was forbidden for followers. However, in more recent years, traditional medicine has become more accommodated, and practitioners of “modern” medicine have increasingly acknowledged that there is much to learn from certain aspects of traditional medical practices. Indeed even the World Health Organization (WHO) has a department that promotes traditional medicine.

In any case, this was bound to happen since in most African countries, the penetration of ‘modern’ medicine remains such that large populations lack access to it, due to its relatively high cost and the concentration of health facilities in urban centres. According to the WHO, in some African countries, as much as 80% of the population may depend on traditional medicine for primary health care. This, among other reasons, legitimizes the call for enhanced research into the various practices employed in African traditional medicine. Africa is endowed with many plants that can be used for medicinal purposes. In fact, out of the approximated 6400 plant species used for various applications in tropical Africa, more than 4000 are used as medicinal plants, used in the treatments of many varied diseases and illnesses[3].


Image Traditional healer


Faced with the mammoth challenge of making ‘modern’ health care services accessible to all, African governments have increasingly adopted policies in favour of integration of traditional African medicine into national health care systems. For example, in 2001, the African Union (AU) Summit of Heads of State and Government declared the period 2001–2010 as the Decade of African Traditional Medicine, and in 2003 adopted a plan of action for its implementation. In 2008, the Ouagadougou Declaration on Primary Health Care and Health Systems in Africa reiterated the Alma Ata Declaration by calling on countries “to set up sustainable mechanisms for increasing the availability, affordability and accessibility of essential medicines and the use of community-directed approaches and African traditional medicines”, among others.

In countries, such as Kenya, governments have a constitutional obligation to facilitate the right of the citizen “to the highest attainable standard of health, which includes the right to health care services, including reproductive health care[4].

However, it would be unfortunate (perhaps naïve?) to simply define healthcare in the context of ‘western’ medicine only. In fact, while still pursuing the ultimate goal of making healthcare available, accessible, affordable, and of good quality for all citizens, governments should be prudent enough to take the bold step (hard choice) of accepting the reality that a large segment of the population is already relying on traditional medicine.

There is evidence to show that traditional medicine and modern (western) medicine are quite frequently used complementarily, with traditional therapies serving as a first-line treatment before modern drugs are sought. For example, within certain communities in Kenya, majority of pregnant women will have consulted a mganga (traditional healer) who administered to them herbal preparations and potions to ward off evil spirits, before making their first antenatal clinic visit[5]. These women perceive antenatal care services obtained at health facilities, and those provided by TBAs and herbalists, to be complementary, and generally, they seek both types of care interchangeably.

The above is a strong reason why governments ought to establish appropriate regulatory mechanisms for accommodation of traditional medicine within the national health care system. Such a measure can go a long way towards assuring safety and effectiveness of the practice. A lesson may be learnt from the way traditional systems of medicine have been facilitated to grow in India and China, to the extent that today, leading institutions in the West are teaching and licensing practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine.

However, a critical challenge for integration is sustaining the holistic concept of traditional African medicine, which traditionally embraced herbal medicine, divination and spiritual healing as mutually reinforcing systems, capable of dealing with physical, emotional and spiritual indispositions.

Whereas a considerable body of knowledge exists on herbal medicine, there is a dearth of scientific data on the other modalities of traditional medical therapy. This ought to be a challenge to African scientists, to engage with traditional medical practitioners, in the hope of establishing what is, and what is not practicable to integrate.

[1] H. J. O’D. Burke-Gaffney The History of Medicine in the African Countries http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/…/pdf/medhist00144-0036.pdf‎

[2] Extract from a lecture given to the Christian Churches’ Educational Association of Kenya, 19 September 1969; see also J S Mbiti African Religions and Philosophy (London: Heinemann, 1969)

[3] Network on Medicinal Plants and Traditional Medicine (Eastern Africa). http://www.idrc.ca/EN/Resources/Publications/Pages/ArticleDetails.aspx?PublicationID=713

[4]The Constitution of Kenya, 2010 Article 43. (1)(a)

[5]Family Care International: Care-Seeking During Pregnancy, Delivery, and the Postpartum Period: A Study in Homabay and Migori Districts, Kenya, September 2003 http://www.familycareintl.org/UserFiles/File/SCI%20Kenya%20qualitative%20report.pdf

Thirty first of every August is ‘African Traditional Medicine Day’ but how many know about it?

Over a span of about 150 years three members of my family have practiced medicine. My grandfather, my brother and I have all at one time or another provided medical care to the needy, all of us receiving acknowledgements from our patients and society. However, that is about where the similarities cease, for with the coming of the colonial power to our lands my grandfather’s practice became severely restricted and despised. Generally, he practiced in secrecy from then on. On the other hand, in the case of my brother and I who were trained in ‘scientific medicine’ by the colonials, our practices were legitimised by stints in the ‘motherland’ as well as being registered by professional regulatory authorities.

 African traditional medicine

In all countries of the world there exists traditional knowledge related to the health of humans and animals. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines traditional medicine as “the sum total of all the knowledge, skills and practice, based on the theories, beliefs, and experiences indigenous to different cultures,whether explicable or not, used in the maintenance of health as well as in the diagnosis, prevention and elimination of physical, mental or social imbalance and relying exclusively on practical experience and observation handed down from generation to generation, whether verbally or in writing”[i].

This definition applies to all traditional systems of medicine whether in Europe, India, China or Africa. Yet whereas European missionaries and colonial administrators left alone, sometimes even encouraged, traditional medicine in India and China, they almost violently discouraged African traditional medicine. In particular, the intricate relationship between African medicine and African religion[ii] made traditional medical practices key targets of attack by early European Christian missionaries, who considered many African traditional religious rites and rituals to be against Christian teachings and morals. Traditional healers were regarded as heathens because of their participation in African Traditional Religion.

The medicine my brother and I practice derives from the germ theory of disease (see below) while my grandfather’s traditional African medicine is based on concepts that are much broader and holistic. In traditional African societies it is believed that good health, disease, success or misfortune are not chance occurrences but arise from the actions of individuals and ancestral spirits according to the balance or imbalance between the individual and the social environment. African traditional understanding was that sickness was a kind of punishment by the spirits of the ancestors to those who do not observe the rules of good social behaviour, from whom the ancestors withdraw their protection leaving them exposed to the whims of evil spirits who cause physical and mental dysfunctions. Traditional healers use plants in a variety of ways, depending on the illness to be cured. Parts of plants can be applied directly to wounds and cuts or, if necessary, prepared as powders, infusions, or even used in the form of smoke or fumes. African herbal medicine is often associated with magic[iii], for example the prescription of amulets and charms as prevention or treatment of diseases.

Today, many Africans including some self proclaimed Christians, and especially politicians, consult a traditional healers for advice on various issues, including health-problems. The African traditional ‘doctors’ have skills in both herbal remedies as well as in spiritual healing, the latter involving various traditional religious rites and rituals. In this regard, African medical practice is holistic- it takes into account all of patient’s physical, mental, and social conditions in the treatment of illness.

The Germ Theory of disease

The Germ Theory of disease is the foundation of modern (western) medicine and was an important basis for innovations such as antibiotics and hygienic practices. Germ theory was validated in the late 19th century, thanks to the works of Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) and Robert Koch (1843-1910). It proposes that microorganisms are the cause of many diseases. Hence management of the disease is focused on establishing which microorganisms are responsible and applying specific drugs (antibiotic) for their elimination. Modern medicine is also referred to as Allopathy, which is defined as the treatment of a disease by using remedies whose effects differ from those produced by that disease. This is the principle of mainstream medical practice, as opposed to that of homeopathy– a complementary disease-treatment system in which a patient is given minute doses of natural substances that in larger doses would produce symptoms of the disease itself.

There is no doubt that introduction of antibiotics (e.g. Penicillin), revolutionised medicine and remains one of the most important milestones in the history of medicine. However, as observed by some critics, the concentration in modern medicine on fighting germs using antibiotics has tended to ignore the “soil upon which the bacteria flourish[iv]” In other words modern medicine tends to focus on the disease not the whole person, as is the case in traditional systems of medicine. “Modern medicine seems too grounded in the study of disease [pathology] and in its eradication and not enough in studying health and how to create and sustain it”. This in fact, is where the great divide exists between modern medicine and African traditional medicine.


Preparing and drying out freshly picked mutis

Bridging the divide- Integration of traditional medicine in national health systems

The World Health Organization estimates that 80% of the populations of Asia, Africa and Latin America use traditional medicine to meet their primary health care needs. For many people in these countries, particularly those living in rural areas, this is the only available, accessible and affordable source of health care. In scenarios such as these African governments should have no option but to ensure there is collaboration between conventional and traditional health practitioners. To this end, Ministries of Health need to set up mechanisms for the regulation and integration of traditional medical practice in national health systems.

The 50th Session of the WHO Regional Committee for Africa which took place in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, 28 August to 2 September 2000 recognized the importance and potential of traditional medicine for the achievement of health for all, and set 31st August of every year as African Traditional Medicine Day[i], [ii]. The Regional Committee adopted a regional strategy for the promotion of the role of Traditional Medicine in national health systems, including establishing structures, programmes and offices in Ministries of Health to institutionalize traditional medicine. Currently 39 countries (including Kenya) have set up such offices, and a few training institutions have established departments of Herbal Medicine[iii]. Other examples of collaboration between traditional medical practitioners and modern medical practitioners are to be found in Uganda and South Africa. In Uganda the Traditional and Modern Health Practitioners against HIV /AIDS (THETA[iv] ) have demonstrated the positive impact traditional medical practitioners can make on health care delivery. In South Africa research conducted by AMREF shows that traditional practitioners can play important roles in integrated HIV/AIDS/STI/tuberculosis programs[v].


As we look forward to this year’s African Traditional Medicine Day it cannot be lost on us that the ongoing WHO-led collaboration appears to focus solely on herbal medicine, yet traditional African medicine is a broader concept than that, incorporating (beside use of herbs) divination and healing of physical, emotional and spiritual illnesses. In any case, a large proportion of herbalists also engage in divining causes of illness and providing various solutions to spiritually or socially-centered complaints, in addition to use of plant and animal products. To this extent herbal medicine and spiritual healing act as mutually reinforcing systems of African traditional medicine. Accommodating the holistic approach in the proposed integrated health systems remains a critical challenge for all involved including WHO.

[i] http://www.afro.who.int/en/fiftieth-session.html

[ii] African Traditional Medicine Day, 31 August, Special issue, African Health Monitor, World Health Organization Regional Office for Africa).2010

[iii] The Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, established a Bachelor of Science Degree in Herbal Medicine in 2001 to train Medical Herbalists.

[iv] Initiated in 1992 through a partnership between The AID S Support

Organization (TA SO) Uganda Ltd and Medicines Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders), an international humanitarian organization.

[v] Melusi Ndhlalambi:Strengthening the Capacity of Traditional Health Practitioners to Respond to HIV/AIDS and TB in Kwa Zulu Natal, South Africa AMREF Case Studies 2009.


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