Medicine rooted in tradition S. African healers offer time-honored remedies from plants

October 19, 1998|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KHAYELITSHA, South Africa -- Albert Khandekana is relishing all the attention his calling is getting under black majority rule here.

He hopes that the government will fund an ambitious training center in this impoverished township and that a major corporation will come knocking on his door.

Khandekana is a traditional healer, one of an estimated 350,000 in the country who treat their millions of patients with a mixture of natural remedy, counseling and spiritualism.

For decades they were forced underground by the minority white supremacist regime, which scoffed at traditional healing as primitive, despite its use by the masses.

Now they are the focus of intense political, academic and industrial interest, benefiting both from the advent of majority rule and the growing global interest in alternative medicine.

The governing African National Congress says traditional healers should be given their "rightful place" in the national health care system.

For a government strapped for cash, they offer an affordable, accessible alternative source of care that is acceptable to the majority of residents.

It is estimated that 80 percent of South Africans consult traditional healers, even if many also get a first or second opinion from a doctor.

Priscilla Adonis, 47, is a typical patient. She has brought her 15-month-old baby to Khandekana's consulting room, a hut in the back yard of his tiny, two-room home here.

The room is crammed with bottles of ground herbs and shaved roots, cases of ceremonial clothes, the beaded fur hat and belt that testify to Khandekana's healer status, certificates showing the AIDS prevention courses he has attended, and a portrait painted in 1976 when he became a "professor of herbs."

In the yard are cardboard boxes of roots and plants Khandekana has harvested from the forest, usually, he says, under the spiritual guidance of his ancestors.

"Once you focus on something, the ancestors are there," he says. "They give you the strength and the energy to survey what is happening to the patient."

Khandekana, a stocky man with short, curly hair and an amiable look, examines baby Christopher briefly without removing him from his mother's arms, anoints his curly head with an unction, and wraps a couple of tablespoons of herbal compound in aluminum wrap for the mother to use later.

"He's a good doctor," says the mother, who eschews conventional medicine but has consulted Khandekana for the past five years. "He always cures me the traditional way. It helps me a lot."

Khandekana, 46, says he was called to be a traditional healer in what is regarded as the normal way -- by his ancestors during a dream. He was trained by his father, also a traditional healer, and other elders.

Although he has never attended school, he can, he says, cure all diseases, from stomach upsets to cancer, from epilepsy to infertility, from anemia to AIDS.

"The way we treat HIV-AIDS is to clean the blood and the body fluids. Once we clean all that, the patient becomes healthy," he says.

Four plant-based medicines can be used against AIDS, he adds, declining to disclose any of the ingredients without "financial assistance" from a corporation to produce, bottle and label them.

"The people want to get information from us, but we don't allow that," he says. "But if you recognize us in the correct way you will contribute toward our needs as traditional healers."

Protecting the public

Legislation to establish an interim council to register, train and monitor traditional healers -- and winnow out perceived charlatans -- is proceeding through Parliament. It would place them under the equivalent of the Medical and Dental Councils for orthodox medical practitioners.

The public needs all the protection it can get from traditional healers, according to Dr. Nthato Motlana, one of this country's leading physicians.

Born in a rural village and treated as a boy by traditional healers, he says: "I know the traditional healers play an important role in the medical care of the people, but I also know that their idea of diagnosis, of circulation, of infection, of microbes is nil.

"My traditional healers, when they treated me, wouldn't even wash their hands. The traditional healer would look to the heavens to make a diagnosis, or throw the dried-up bones of a monkey's ankle to make a diagnosis.

"Now people out there want to push my people into the 10th century A.D. while others move into the 21st century with all its sophisticated diagnosis procedures. I get absolutely mad."

Motlana sees an Africanist political dynamic behind the move to recognize traditional healers.

"As the movement for independence, nationalism, Africanism grew over the continent, it seems to me that black Africans wanted to show they also had something to contribute to the development of mankind's civilization.

"They found, therefore, something they could hold forth as genuinely African -- traditional healers and their wisdom, as imagined over the past."

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