Saturday, October 27, 2012

Magic Week Presents THE MED BEAT: Wait... Which Witch is Which?

Kurtis Morrish

Before I open up a discussion of witch doctors in the past, present, and future, its important to define what (or who) a witch doctor is! The term ‘witch doctor’ is loosely and inappropriately used to describe almost any form of healing that deviates from conventional western medicine. It is commonly (and derogatorily) used to refer to traditional healers in many developing countries, as well as naturopaths and faith healers in the Western world.

In actuality, a witch doctor is also not a witch. In fact, they are almost the opposite: a witch doctor protects against witchcraft and attempts to heal those believed to have had spells or other sorcery cursed upon them. 

Depending on where they are, witch doctors may also fill many roles in the community such as, physical and emotional healers, narrating their peoples' history and foretelling their future, or even finding lost cows or goats. Regardless of where they are, witch doctors play an important role in their local, regional, and even national societies.

Traditional healers in Southern Africa (that we might otherwise call ‘witch doctors’) play an extremely important position as health care providers across many different countries. These shamans, as they are also called, are divided into two specialties: Sangoma (focusing on accessing the afterlife, ancestors, spirits and animals) and Inyanga (primarily herbalists), though many traditional healers have experience and training to some degree in both fields. It is estimated that in South Africa alone, there are over 200,000 traditional healers (compared to 25,000 Western-trained physicians) who are consulted by more than 60% of the total population for individual, family, and community healthcare needs.

Though the vast majority of these healers are of indigenous African descent, there are many tribes that train non-African sangoma students. In South Africa, the formal process of becoming a sangoma is legally recognized as a professional level of training, and is taught in conjunction with university courses by institutes created specifically for the training of new healers.

There are open debates regarding whether or not South African health insurance companies will begin to cover their client’s medical expenses billed for the services of a traditional healer. This issue is most hotly debated surrounding the birthing practices of traditional healers around the world, as many ‘witch doctors’ are trained in the ritual and physical delivery of a newborn. Many have argued that these practices help the process and improve the likelihood of survival and prosperity of both mother and child.

We’ve been talking about Southern Africa, but now let’s hop on a plane and fly to the other side of the world: above the arctic circle in Northern Canada. Here, the First Nations peoples of the Yukon and Norwest Territories (also generally referred to as Inuit) still actively use traditional medicine for all sorts of events, ailments, and proceedings within the community. Some tribes are renowned for their use of traditional midwives who are paired with the expecting mother 2-3 months after conception. These midwives work closely with the expecting mother throughout the pregnancy, preparing her for delivery and a safe recovery following birth by helping to widen the birth canal manually. This activity has not only been widely reported as reducing complications during pregnancy and at birth, not just reducing the pain of labor, but in most cases eliminating it completely! Imagine a pain-free, drug-free delivery... Not something that is found often in our Western hospitals and health clinics.

To many, the thought of witch doctors and ‘superstitious’ medicine may seem like an idea of the past; intriguing due to its mystery, but useless in application to the health problems we face today. But, traditional healers are an active group of healthcare providers in many parts of the world even today, and their presence is growing.

Thinking of the ‘magical’ elements of traditional medicine: the rituals, the herbs, the costumes, and the beliefs, I can’t help but see parallels to Western medicine, which has its own set of beliefs, costumes, mystery, ritual, and magic.

For more information regarding South Africa’s parallel medical systems, read this.

And, more on traditional healing in the fight against HIV/AIDS, read this.

Article sources:

Campbell, Susan Schuster (1998). Called to Heal. Halfway House: Zebra Press.

Cumes, David (2004). Africa in my bones. Claremont: New Africa Books.

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Medical Section Columnist, Kurtis Morrish:

My name is Kurtis Morrish. I graduated from Cal last year as an Integrative Biology major. I am now in the process of applying to medical school in the hopes of one day serving people as a family doctor. By no means do I write to you as an M.D., but I have extensive experience doing all kinds of scientific research; boiling-down long, dry, mumbo-jumbo-dense medical journals into a reduction that is a little sweeter, useful, and hopefully informative for you. I hope to learn as much from my writing as you do, so please hit me up with further questions, concerns, or comments!

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