Traditional healers: what you need to know
Cape Town - Would you like to rekindle an old romance, win the Lotto or improve your sexual prowess? If pamphlets from many traditional healers are to be believed, the solution is easy and only a phone call or quick appointment away.
At some point, most people have walked along a main road in Cape Town and had such pamphlets shoved into their hands. The healers offer an array of services, including abortions and penis enlargements.
But most of these healers, says Phepisile Maseko, national co-ordinator of the Traditional Healers Organisation (THO), are only out to make a quick buck, selling “good luck” and “love” muti.
“A true healer is someone who has been through initiation, inducted by an expert in the field, who has undergone rigorous training and completed external healing courses,” says Maseko.
Like mainstream medicine, there are specialists in traditional medicine’s various fields, she says. These include herbalists, medicine men, diagnosticians, and counsellors.
The THO issues practitioners with a certificate of competence, which assures every patient that the practitioner has completed training and is capable of healing patients in an ethical, efficient, safe and hygienic manner.
Practice is only allowed after at least two years of training and mentorship, and part-time guidance and support must be continued for three more years.
All medicines are plant and animal-based, says Maseko. And healers are not allowed to use human parts in their medicine. According to their code of ethics, muti killings and body parts trafficking is forbidden, along with any sexual contact with patients, the non-referral of patients when necessary, or deliberately misrepresenting their abilities.
“The ethical responsibility is the greatest demand placed on each traditional healer,” reads the code. Any breaches are treated as professional misconduct, and are punishable by the THO disciplinary committee.
Unfortunately, most of the complaints are against “quack” doctors who are not affiliated to any association.
Dr Motlalepula Matsabisa, director of the Medical Research Council’s Indigenous Knowledge Unit, says there appears to be many of them around.
But because of the lack of regulation, the bogus doctors work unchecked.
“Many of these quack healers always claim to be foreigners from East and West Africa. These are the people who are tainting the profession,” says Matsabisa.
He points out that if anyone can bring about good luck and predict Lotto numbers, they wouldn’t be poor themselves. “Yes, medicinal plants have healing properties, this is not disputable. But our people should not be gullible,” he says.
Matsabisa says there are a number of myths relating to traditional medicine. The most common, he says, is that it is safe and devoid of side-effects. Traditional medicine, like any other, can be very toxic if not used properly.
Another myth, he says, is that traditional medicines interact negatively with prescription medicines.
Some interactions, in fact, can be beneficial, says Matsabisa. These have been proven in drug-resistant malaria, hypertension, diabetes and cancer treatments.
According to a study titled Economics of the Traditional Medicine Trade in SA, the trade in traditional medicines in SA is estimated to be worth R2.9 billion annually and 771 species of plants are used.
Maseko says that if a patient complains of headaches, they will be given plants with painkilling properties. But the healer will also try to establish the root cause of the headaches, and treat that too. This may mean the healer will provide counselling to the patient.
Treatment is usually holistic, and a once-off ointment will generally not do the trick. Many clients come for help with their relationships or marriages. Maseko explains that a potion may be given to open the communication channels between couples, so that they can speak about their problems. Counselling will also be on offer, but there is no quick-fix solution, she says.
She says healers who claim they can enlarge penises are misrepresenting their services. These unrealistic claims go against the code of ethics members of the THO are bound by.
The THO, which has 29 000 members in SA, has a complaints forum, and most complaints received are about unscrupulous healers. “Unfortunately, we can’t do anything about those who are not members. And it is these people who give our industry a bad name,” she says.
The biggest challenge is the lack of regulation. According to the Traditional Healers Act of 2007, a Traditional Healers’ Council was supposed to have been set up within 12 months to serve a regulatory function, similar to that of the Health Professions Council. But, Maseko says, a lack of commitment has resulted in this not happening.
Matsabisa agrees that the lack of regulation of traditional medicine has been completely neglected.
“There is a need to institutionalise traditional medicines in SA for the safety and benefit of all its consumers. We need the speedy establishment of the Traditional Health Practitioners Statutory Council, we need serious and urgent reorganisation of the Medicines Control Council and all acts pertaining to the use, sale beneficiation and production of traditional medicines,” he says.
Matsabisa, who specialises in traditional medicine, says the denialist attitudes of doctors, medicines regulators and authorities, and the market-entry barriers from the multinational pharmaceutical industry, all unjustifiably aim to block and damage the reputation of traditional medicines.
“People will continue to use traditional medicines and the best that we could do is to scientifically evaluate these products before we outright reject them for no good scientific reasons,” he says.
Matsabisa says instead of making use of, and developing the knowledge of traditional medicines, people look down on this health system.
“South Africa behaves as though it is a First World country, but is also not aware that in developed countries the majority of people now increasingly use traditional medicines. We are in denial of our own self, in denial of our roots and system of health.”
Professor who sells his own natural Viagra
Nature holds a cure for most common ailments, whether it’s pain, emotional distress or sexual dysfunction, says spiritual and holistic healer Professor Ismail.
Ismail, like many others based in the CBD, employs people to hand out pamphlets that detail the services he offers. These include bringing back lost lovers, penis enlargement, protection for those with dangerous jobs and career success.
Ismail, 46, was born in Kenya and has been in Cape Town for six years. He says healing is a trade that was passed on to him by his father, a healer in Kenya. He doesn’t have a medical degree, but underwent strict training.
“When I was 10, he started teaching me everything he knew,” says Ismail. His father taught him which herbs and plants to pick and how to prepare them. Most of his ingredients still come from the highlands of Kenya.
Ismail says all his medicine is 100 percent natural, made from plant material. He doesn’t use animals in any of his products.
When I ask about the penis enlargement and how this is done, he says it’s very simple. While the pamphlet promises an enlargement, Ismail says he deals only with erectile dysfunction. The herbs he dispenses are natural Viagra.
“When our ancestors had these problems, they had to use natural products. They didn’t have access to Western medicine,” says Ismail. The herb must be boiled in water, then be allowed to draw before the mixture is drunk. Ismail warns that no sugar should be added. The treatment, which costs R600, is among the more expensive. The plants used not available locally, are from Kenya.
Ismail is realistic about his limitations. He says many clients who are HIV positive seek his help, looking for a cure. “I try to convince them to go to a hospital or clinic, because there is no cure for that,” he says.
There are also those who ask him to bring bad luck or even death on other people. Ismail says that when he is asked to do this, he provides counselling to the person, encouraging them to resolve the conflict amicably, or to let it go.
While he does offer “protection” medicine for people who have dangerous jobs – such as security guards, policemen and people who work in banks – there are limits to this, too.
Ismail claims that when clients take his medicine, which costs R200, their intended assailant will opt out of targeting them, and instead go for someone else or give up on the idea altogether. The treatment, however, does not make them invincible to bullets or any other fatal threats.
The most popular treatment, he says, is bringing back a lost lover. These herbs are not to be consumed, he says. This treatment costs between R100 and R200, and the client is instructed to go home, burn the herbs, and call the person’s name. By burning the herbs, you speak to the ancestors, who assist in returning your love to you, he says.
Ismail assures me that even if my lost lover now hates me, the medicine will work. “All my medicines must work, otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting here,” he says.
When consulting a traditional healer:
* Look at their track record in the community, whether they are known and recommended.
* Is the healer accredited with a traditional healers’ organisation?
* Can they refer you to other healers in your area?
* Ensure that they have attended workshops on basic primary health care.
* They need to be knowledgeable about current health issues.
* If you need a specialist, ensure your healer is not a general practitioner of traditional medicine. Ask for evidence of their expertise.
According to the MRC’s Indigenous Knowledge Unit:
* Medical doctors have accepted that traditional practitioners are very good with psychiatric conditions.
* Traditional medicines have contributed to development of up to 30 percent of prescription drugs.
* 80 percent of all cancer medicines are derived from plants.
* All antibiotics are derived from natural resources.
* Drugs derived from traditional medicines treat 90 percent of human diseases.
* 75 percent of the prescription medicines derived from plants have been derived through knowledge from traditional health practitioners.
* More than 80 percent of people use and rely on traditional medicines.
According to Professor Salim Karim, president of the MRC, there are between 350 000 and 400 000 traditional health practitioners in SA.
According to the Economics of the Traditional Medicine Trade in SA study:
* The trade in traditional medicines in SA is estimated to be worth R2.9 billion annually.
* There are an estimated 27 million consumers.
* There are at least 133 000 people employed in the trade, mostly rural women.
* It’s estimated that 128 million courses of traditional medicine treatments are prescribed yearly, using about 20 000 tons of indigenous plant material. - Cape Argus