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.