Healing In Africa

African cultures have been known for the import placed upon spiritual healing for generations. However, healing in Africa is not limited to spiritual means, or divination, but also includes the use of plants and so forth in the treatment of a number of different ailments. African medicine and healing has evolved over the centuries, having once been the job of a wise witch doctor to now being incorporated into secular medicine to different degrees.

In addition to the natural treatments discovered by indigenous African folk, colonialism and the introduction of other cultures meant that healing techniques and products were soon infused with influences from Greece, ancient Egypt, Islam and, of course, Christianity. As discoverers, explorers, missionaries and others began to visit and occupy different parts of Africa, they brought with them their own methods and ideas.

In general, there have been five main ideas and / or practices of healing identified in Africa. These are:

1. Empirical therapies – this is based on observing a sickness and the way it progresses, rather than on conducting any sort of official scientific tests or research.
2. Ritualised therapies – singing, dancing and the metaphorical use of objects (whether bones, stones or a calabash, for example) are believed to have the power to heal. This method is often used in conjunction with physical medicine. Ritualised therapies are highly charged and depend very much on how the ailment is perceived. These types of therapies are used when the person’s illness is believed to be as a result of upsetting the ancestors or some other form of conflict between the human and spiritual worlds. Only those deemed especially blessed for this role are able to perform such rituals. This type of treatment may involve sacrificing an animal to the ancestors, which can become quite costly to those depending on their stock for food and money.
3. Collective therapeutic rites – those who have recovered from an illness then become healers in this particular field, helping others to be healed.
4. Divination – in this arena, the healer will examine a patient’s misfortune, finding a cause for it in his or her interactions with others (e.g. if hurtful words have been said to another person, the patient may be suffering from stomach ache). This is a result of “natural causes” (as perceived by western thought) being attributed to action by God. Therefore, ‘divine’ methods of treatment need to be employed, rather than physical ones. Divination is usually used when:
a. The condition is worsening without logical explanation and despite conventional treatment.
b. Death is sudden and inexplicable.
c. Illness or death happens at a time at which there are disputes or conflicts among those close to the victim or sufferer.
d. Illness strikes only one side of the family and not the other.
In the case of divination, there might be a logical explanation regarding the illness (e.g. malaria caused by a mosquito bite), but the diviner would possibly provide information as to why that particular person was made ill and not the rest of the family, for example.
5. Adaptive Order – this concept holds that your health is a result of good cultural values and actions.

In times past, the healers would collect medicinal plants from the wild, specifically chosen for each case that they treated. Over time, this led to the growth and cultivation of a range of such plants specifically for storing and using by the medicine man or witch doctor. Therefore, the domestication of plants and livestock as well as the settling of communities all played an integral role in the evolution of medicine and healing in Africa.

The areas that were first visited by European settlers and the like were the first to begin a modernisation process. In West Africa, Islam and Arabia’s influence became significant in the healing spheres of the locals. This also accounts for there being a great common ground of health-related terms and ideas, since settlers from Europe occupied places all over this vast continent

Another major influence in the African healing practices and principles of various areas has been the ecological area in which different cultures are situated. The presence of the tsetse fly or the proximity of a tropical forest, for example, all have influences on the health and illnesses of the locals.

There are a number of basic concepts that Africans use to make sense of illnesses and the formulation of healing methods. These concepts include:

1. Physical structure – a whole, undisrupted being is a healthy one. Disruption (or the non-perfect) suggests sickness. In this theory, white suggest purity, red indicates transition and danger and black is a symbol of human chaos.
2. Balance – harmony or balance between and among humans and their environment (natural and spiritual) is necessary to achieve good health. Imbalance, according to this concept, causes illness.
3. A ritual state of purity – this concept presents purity (or wellness) as something that is only achieved when the dimensions of the human world are correct. If these are out of balance, the body is polluted, impure; therefore, suffering illness.
4. Coolness versus heat – coolness is perceived as indicating health and style, while heat has connotations of conflict and illness.
5. Flow and blockage – this is a widespread notion and refers to the flow between the physical body and exchanges within its society. If there is no correct flow, the result will be disease, infertility, witchcraft and constipation. However, a good flow will lead to wealth and prosperity.

All of these concepts make use of the imagery by which a particular disease is perceived, rather than practical observation and study. However, they link closely to physical medicinal cures or treatments. For example, severe stomach cramps may be attributed to their being an evil snake in one’s gut. Medicines are administered. Once the cramps are eased, the power of the medicines is attributed to their quelling the beast within, rather than to its physical curative properties.

Divination is incredibly widespread across Africa. However, the particular items used in order to conduct divine treatments vary from one area to another. They range from carved figures, bones and other natural objects.

As Islam and Christianity have infiltrated African cultures (and vice versa), there has been a seeping in of African (or pagan, non-religious) rituals and more traditional worship. Today, there are many independent African churches that employ similar methods of healing and divination, although very different to any of the healing accounts appearing in the Bible (which did not involve showy displays, song, dance and ancestor worship). Since it was only when the Christian missionaries began to occupy Africa that their religious beliefs and ideals were introduced, it is little wonder that the deeply-entrenched cultural beliefs remain so prominent today.

Because of the very real links to their culture and worship, healing and medicine remain a major part of the lives and customs of Africans today.

Sayings From Africa

Africa is a continent known for its rich culture and the complexity of its beliefs. The multitude of tribes and languages has resulted in a number of fascinating sayings and proverbs. These have taught us much about the beliefs, values and wisdom that exists within the African borders. They also reveal that human beings are more alike than they are different. African sayings may have used metaphors that are more relevant to the rural, tribal way of life of their originators, but the principles are something with which almost anybody can identify.

These are just a few of the many sayings and proverbs that Africa has produced:

• When your mouth stumbles, it’s worse than feet (Oji).
• To stay a long time in the water does not make you clean.
• It is better to be loved than feared.
• A village never lacks a beautiful young woman.
• However long the night, the dawn will break.
• Women give birth with other women.
• Blind belief is dangerous (Luyia, Western Kenya).
• A champion bull starts from birth (Luyia, Western Kenya).
• He who marries a real beauty is seeking trouble (Accra, Ghana).
• The young can’t teach traditions to the old (Yoruba).
• There is no medicine against old age (Accra, Ghana).
• The good looks of a moron do not stay that way for long (Ethiopia).
• Hold a true friend with both hands (Kanuri, Nigeria).
• Rising early makes the road short (Wolof, Senegal).
• Individuals have different talents.
• The teeth of a man serve as a fence (Wolof, Senegal).
• We add wisdom to knowledge (Kalenjin, Kenya).
• Do not follow a person who is running away (Kalenjin, Kenya).
• Water cannot be forced uphill (Kalenjin, Kenya).
• We should talk while we are still alive (Kalenjin, Kenya).
• There is no bad patience (Swahili).
• Do not vacillate or you will be left in between doing something, having something and being nothing (Ethiopia).
• It is foolhardy to climb two trees at once just because one has two feet (Ethiopia)
• He flees from the roaring lion to the crouching lion (Sechuana).
• Do not tell the man carrying you that he stinks (Sierra Leone).
• You suffer from smoke produced by the firewood you fetched yourself (Luhya, Kenya).
• A man who dictates separates himself from others (Somalia).
• Instruction in youth is like engraving in stones (Berber, North Africa).
• A low-class man will just talk; deeds are the hallmark of a gentleman (Swahili).
• The haughty blind person picks a fight with his guide (Ethiopia)
• The rainmaker who doesn’t know what he’s doing will be found out by the lack of clouds (Luganda, Uganda).
• The one chased away with a club comes back, but the one chased away with reason does not (Kikuyu, Kenya).
• He who loves money must labour (Mauritania).
• Poverty is slavery (Somalia).
• Knowledge is better than riches (Cameroon).
• A man’s wealth may be superior to him (Cameroon).
• The rich are always complaining (Zulu).
• Dogs do not actually prefer bones to meat, it is just that no one ever gives them meat (Akan).
• People know each other better on a journey
• Before you go out with a widow, you must first ask her what killed the husband.
• A wise man never knows all, only fools know everything
• Until the lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.


African Cultures – Yoruba

The Yoruba are a group of people living in modern-day Nigeria, Togo and Benin in West Africa. They are known for, amongst other things, their magnificent sculpture work. They are one of the largest ethnic groups of the area, making up more than one-fifth of the population of Nigeria alone. In fact, Nigeria has the greatest concentration of Yoruba people than any other country. Most of these speak Yoruba as a language too. Interestingly, in addition to Africa, there are also large communities of Yoruba immigrants in the United States of America and the United Kingdom.

Africa has been inhabited for millennia, according to archaeological and historical remnants. The people that occupied this part of West Africa were not always called the Yoruba, but had a common language and ethnicity. The Yoruba are known for forming large city settlements instead of smaller village-like establishments.

Image of Egungun masquerade dance garment in the permanent collection of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis
Egungun masquerade dance garment in the permanent collection of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

The Yoruba culture is based largely on the more than 400 gods in which these people believe. In addition to affecting their worship and praise, these gods are also an important subject for their art. Such art includes ceramic work, beading, metal work, and the making of traditional face masks. The multitude of their gods makes for great variety in their artwork. Such art dates back hundreds of years; artefacts of terra cotta sculptures have been found that date back to the 12th century.

In terms of the Yoruba literature, there are six main genres that still survive to this day:

1. Hunters’ chants (ijala)
2. Masquerade chants (iwi egungun)
3. Social chants (rara)
4. Praise chants for the god of thunder (sango-pipe)
5. Divination poetry (ifa)
6. Children’s poetry

Poetry and tales were only conveyed orally until the early part of the 19th century since there was no official written or read language structure until then. At this time, missionaries began to collect such stories and produce a written form of the language that they heard. This was an enormous step forward for the writers and poets of the time, as they were now able to record their work on paper, publish it in local newspapers and share it with others on a far wider scale. By the end of the 20th century, over 120 novels had been published in the Yoruba language.

In terms of theatrical performance, there are two main types: 1) travelling theatre and 2) literary drama. Travelling theatre is performed in front of a live audience and is not scripted, while literary drama is published, and seldom performed.

The naming of babies makes up an enormously significant part of the Yoruba culture. Yorubas believe, as do many other African cultures, that the baby will live to fulfil the meaning of the name that it is given. Therefore, what they name their child will shape the personality, success and future of that person. When naming a newborn infant, the parents must consider the history of his or her relatives. The name is considered to be like a spirit; a similar concept to the western idea of a guardian angel. A naming ceremony is conducted, usually by the oldest member of the family. At this celebration, other relatives have the opportunity to add to the baby’s official name(s). This has resulted in Yoruba people with more than 10 or 12 official names. Pet names are also important for each child, and are generally chosen to reflect one’s hope for the child’s future.

The courting process (with the aim of marriage) often involves the young man and his friends playing pranks on the chosen girl. He will send love letters to her and, once she has indicated that she reciprocates his feelings, his parents will need to discuss the matter with her parents. A bride price is required before the wedding can take place. Marriage in this community involves the union of two families, not only two individuals. Traditionally, a woman must remain a virgin until her wedding day in order not to bring shame upon her family.

Like almost every other religion, the Yoruba believe that the soul continues to live after death; thus not really dying at all. Their religion is referred to as Aborisha or Orisha-Ifa. The entire purpose of a devout Yoruba person’s life is to live in such a way that promotes a good life, while delivering the message of the Creator to others to do the same. If this has been done, the Yoruba believe that their afterlife will be a pleasant one (equivalent to the Christian concept of a life in heaven). Another prominent belief is that of ancestors, who are believed to be watching over their living relatives on earth. Instead of worshipping such ancestors, though, the Yoruba merely venerate, remember and respect them.

African Cultures – Hausa

The Hausa-speaking people of Africa occupy mainly the savannah belt, including Niger, Benin, Chad, Ghana and Nigeria. They make up the largest ethnic group of West Africa and are known as successful traders. There are seven official Hausa states:

1. Biram
2. Kano
3. Rano
4. Katsina
5. Daura
6. Zazzau
7. Gobir
Legend has it that the founders of these states were descendents of Bayajjida from Baghdad, a mythical ancestor. According to the legend, Bayajjida fled from Baghdad in the ninth or tenth century and helped the king of Daura to kill a venomous snake. To thank him, the king gave Bayajjida the queen as a wife. Together, they had seven sons, who went on to establish the seven states. In days of old, these states were ruled by independent kings. Towards the closing of the 1200’s, Islam was introduced, but it was never accepted until the Fulani jihad (military conquests or Islamic holy wars of the early 1800’s) in the areas of modern-day Nigeria and Cameroon. Until that time, locals had worshipped ancestral gods. The Fulani jihad changed the socio-political structures of the entire Hausa area, overthrowing the local rulers and turning Hausaland into Muslim emirates that were subject to Sokoto, which is situated in the extreme northwest of Nigeria.

Image of a Young Hausa girl, Ouidah, Benin.
Young Hausa girl, Ouidah, Benin.

The Hausa people are renowned for their enterprising nature and have developed their own manufacturing industries over the centuries. These include leatherwork, glassmaking, smithing, weaving, dyeing, and metal work. Even with limited resources in the past, the Hausa travelled the area and established caravan routes and distributive trade networks across Nigeria. This earned them their reputation as excellent traders.

The Hausa-speaking people are also experienced farmers, who use a form of irrigation called fadama, which is traditional. This method involves farming in marshy soil alongside a river or lake, allowing the crops to become flooded on a seasonal basis. Such crops include maize, millet, rice, peanuts, beans and corn. Cattle are also farmed extensively and are usually left in the care of the cattle Fulani, who are a nomadic herding group of people.

Because the Hausa-speaking people are so prolific in the area, Hausa was, for a long time, the official language. Today, it is still spoken extensively and widely understood. It is written using Arabic characters, which means that many of the Hausa people can also read and write in Arabic. Other languages in which the Hausa are frequently proficient include French and English.

With the introduction of the Fulani people, much interbreeding and interracial marriage occurred. As a result, the modern community of Hausa people is often referred to as the Hausa-Fulani, and many of their customs and rituals have evolved to include elements from both origins.

The majority of Hausa-speaking people are Muslim, and adhere to the beliefs and teachings of the Koran, their holy scriptures. Therefore, their dress, art, laws, holidays, and so on all reflects Muslim ideals. The rural areas are home to some Hausa that are not Muslims, but who worship nature spirits. These are called Maguzawa.

Hausa youth usually marry at around 15 to 19 years of age. Festivities begin in the bride-to-be’s home as she is prepared by her female relatives for the marriage, the celebrations of which may last for several days. The men on both sides of the couple’s family go to the mosque to sign the marriage register. Thereafter, the couple is brought together to celebrate their new life as husband and wife. Once married, a woman lives a life of relative seclusion, only really leaving the home in the case of their needing medical attention or to attend some sort of ceremony. When out of the house, a married woman must don veils to be as conservatively dressed as possible. A man may have up to four wives in the Hausa tradition.

When a Hausa person dies, the body is washed, shrouded and buried to face the holy land of Mecca in the east. It is appropriate for the relatives of the deceased to receive condolences and a widow will officially mourn her late husband for about three months.

The Hausa enjoy relatively relaxed relationships with different members of the family – even amongst young and old. However, it is considered disrespectful to call one’s parents or spouse by their name, or even to say their name to others. The Hausa are generally a quiet culture that does not show an enormous amount of emotion in their dealings with one another or with others. Households include extended families, particularly in the more rural areas.

The Hausa men usually wear long gowns with beautiful embroidery detail around the neck. Their traditional colourful caps are called huluna.

The Hausa eat grains, maize, porridge, soups and stews, as well as plenty of vegetables (such as spinach, tomatoes, peppers, onions, pumpkin and okra). Meat is usually only consumed in small amounts, if at all.

Art and music is very important to the Hausa culture. Praise-song was always a very popular form of performance art, and was used to exalt the values that came with leadership in the traditional environment. When the Islamic powers entered the area in the 19th century, poetry shifted its focus to religious ideals. Today, literature is often used by local Hausa poets to express their opinions and concerns about political, social and topical matters. Storytelling and musical performances remain common forms of entertainment for the Hausa people. The traditional literature of the Hausa comprises many stories that include a practical moral, encouraging the listeners to draw value and lessons from these tales and to implement the principles in their own lives. These tales are called tatsunya. They often include proverbs and riddles within their storyline.

Popular sports among the Hausa include:

• Wrestling
• Boxing
• Soccer

African Cultures – Fulani

The Fulani people, also known as the Fula in English, are an African group that are found in Guinea, Nigeria, Cameroon, Senegal, Mali, Sierra Leone, Central African Republic, Burkina Faso, Benin, Niger, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Ghana, Chad, Sudan, Togo and Côte d’Ivoire. Basically, they occupy the area from the coast of the Atlantic Ocean in the west to Chad, and even certain areas of Sudan. There are currently approximately 15 million Fulani people living in Africa, the vast majority (about two-thirds, in fact) of whom are living in Nigeria.

The Fulani are part of the Niger-Congo linguistic group and speak the Fulaar dialect of the Fulfulde language. They are particularly proud of their culture, heritage and identity.

The Fulani people are believed to have come from Libya or the southern part of Egypt, from where they gradually moved towards the coastline in the west of Africa. Then, in the 1200’s, the Islam people, their religion and its traditions began to penetrate this culture, which happened at the same time that the Fulani people began to spread towards the central regions of Africa. They became a particularly strong warring nation, powerful in their successful endeavours to settle in various areas of the continent. Then, in the early part of the 19th century, the Islam or Moslem Empire of Sokoto was established, which subjected all of the Hausa kingdoms (of which the Fulani were one). Thereafter, the Europeans started to arrive in Africa, also playing a major role in the decline of the Fulani power. Still, this did not completely eradicate the culture, as the people retained their hold on many of the customs and ideals that defined them. This has meant that, even today, the Fulani people are a unique and fascinating group. They are lighter in complexion than most black African cultures and have straighter hair, which has been surmised to be due to their integration with the Islam folk.

This culture is divided into castes, which consist of (in order of importance) nobility, cattle owners, herdsmen and then craftsmen and cultivators, who are deemed to be the very lowest classes. In fact, the vast majority of those within these last two divisions have descended from black slaves. The Fulani family is under the head of the patriarch, or father. The entire society is based upon the different families’ patriarchs and the land that they own and occupy, as well as the buildings and livestock on that land. The marriages within this culture are polygamous. However, a bride price is paid by the groom’s family to the bride’s family, so no man will have more wives than he can afford to pay the bride price for. Because of their original ties to Libya and southern Egypt, the Fulani people retain many of the cultural characteristics of the Libyan-Berber people.

The Fulani people are strictly rural or pastoral. Any other jobs that need to be done in their area are left to neighbouring tribes and cultures. They are traditionally nomadic, moving from one area to the next according to their needs and the natural resources available to them. They are also known for their trading, making a life from bartering and selling their goods. Their livestock farming consists mainly of cattle (their most important and valued asset), sheep and goats. Interestingly, the Fulani tend to distance themselves from other agricultural populations around them.

These people are known for their tattoos, which are inked onto men, women and, sometimes, even infants. The Fulani women frequently tattoo their lips, making them black, or dye them with henna. Tattoos are considered to beautify the body, and aesthetic beauty is particularly important in this culture. Young girls and women typically wear strips of colourful cotton woven into the hair just above their foreheads. Their clothing is characteristically colourful, comprising long robes with a little embroidery or embellishment sewn on. Men and women both don these long robes, and the herdsmen and women wear turbans. Jewellery is important for both men and women.

Bravery is a very important concept in the Fulani culture. They have an array of weapons testifying to their warrior courage and lack of fear. When young boys are coming of age, they perform a ritual that requires that they strike one another with spears, laughing as they receive blow after blow to their young bodies. Many boys have died during these ceremonies.

Music and song are an integral part of the Fulani culture. Their instruments include a riti (similar to a violin), hoddu (like a banjo) and drums. Ululation is also a very popular addition to most musical pieces. This is a vocal technique that is high-pitched, adding a tribal sound to the overall piece.

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