Daryl Ilbury

Don’t knock traditional healers and their sick notes

In Eish!, Fools, Science on October 24, 2012 at 1:00 pm

“Geez, doc, can’t I just take a couple of pills instead?”

I’ve shocked a number of people who have contacted me for comment on what has been dubbed ‘The Sangoma Sick Note Saga’ because I have come out in support for traditional healers…sort of.

I’ve been taught ‘content is king, context is King Kong’, so here’s a quick scene-set for non-South African readers of this blog:

The Labour Appeal Court in South Africa has upheld a decision by the CCMA (Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration) that a labourer who was fired for presenting a sick note from a sangoma (a South African traditional healer), be reinstated. If you want to read a bit more about the court’s decision, you can read the SAPA release as carried in The Sowetan newspaper. What has made the story somewhat juicy is that the labourer was employed at Kievits Kroon Country Estate – an upmarket conference venue, hotel and spa resort just outside Pretoria, and a popular destination for business people and the generally well-heeled (one would hope that after a visit to the spa they’d also be well-healed…but I digress).

It’s important to understand that in South Africa traditional healers are not some whimsical artefact of African folklore, they are still very much an integral part of modern African culture. They are officially referred to as ‘traditional health practitioners’ and their right to practise is protected by the constitution. They are also governed by a specific law, and they are represented up to the very highest office: traditional medicine enjoys similar aknowledgement as modern medicine by the national Department of Health.

But that doesn’t explain why I – a Western-schooled science journalist who embraces the rigours of evidence-based scientific enquiry – would seem to support a decision that endorses traditional healing.

The reason has, in fact, two parts: one is wrapped in the way I see science and medicine, and the other is sewn into my passion for jabbing a spear into the side of convention (and, it seems, my inclination for mixing metaphors).

To explain the way I see science and medicine I need to cite the sagacious Dr Toby Murcott, a former lecturer of mine and the author of the fascinating The Whole Story: Alternative Medicine on Trial?. Now, if there’s one thing Toby taught me it’s that to critically examine medicine you need an open mind, a healthy dose of scepticism, and to be prepared to employ an exhaustive search for evidence.

Now back to our sangoma story (and if you wish to get some context of what’s involved in consulting a sangoma, here’s a quick explanation)…

Firstly, the science journalist in me rejects outright the central assertion by sangomas that illness is caused by ‘spirits’ and elements of witchcraft. An open mind is one thing, having one so cavernous it sucks in all manner of ideological flotsam is another. However, the same science journalist in me has to acknowledge that the muti (traditional medicine) that is often prescribed to ‘patients’ may contain plant extracts that have the same active ingredients as certain ‘modern’ medicines.

Furthermore, I am also aware that the power of suggestion, appeal to authority, and the ceremony of intervention that are behind the ‘magic’ of a sangoma, are also recognised by science as still-active components of modern medicine. A doctor showing deep empathy for a patient and then subscribing a course of branded medication with the assurance that it will remove the symptoms and heal the malady may lack all the colour of a sangoma throwing bones and burning ‘impepho’ (a sacred herb burnt to call the ancestors), but the effect on the patient is very similar.

And finally, here’s the jabbing of the spear in the side of convention: How silly is a note from a traditional healer claiming a woman is sick because she has to appease her ancestors’ spirits, when Christian faith healers claim they can cure the sick by invoking the power of the holy spirit?

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