South Africans look to healers

Treatment: From traditional medicine, the country seeks answers to such health problems as AIDS.

May 09, 2004|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ORANGE FARM, South Africa - Alice Motsie believes a cure for AIDS may be on the middle shelf of her refrigerator, beside a slab of butter and a liter of milk.

This is where Motsie, a traditional healer, keeps a stainless steel decanter containing a murky-brown brew of African potato, herbs, roots and bark, which she says has cured dozens of her patients of AIDS, as well as keeping her a fit-looking 55.

"It's powerful," Motsie says, pouring herself a glass of the mixture before knocking it back like a shot of whiskey.

Just over a decade ago, Motsie would have been dismissed as a quack or a witch by South Africa's apartheid government. But black-ruled South Africa is looking to the country's 200,000 traditional healers like Motsie for answers to pressing health problems.

"Traditional medicine is ceasing to be an obscure practice. ... This rare discipline is fast becoming a name to be reckoned with in our struggles to fight diseases and ensure the health of our people," Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, South Africa's minister of health, said a month ago.

According to the ministry, 80 percent of South African's 45 million people use traditional medicine. For many, it is the most readily available form of treatment. Here in Orange Farm, a black township about 25 miles southwest of Johannesburg, there are three physicians for the community of about 20,000 people but more than 200 traditional healers.

Traditional health care - a secretive practice involving bone throwers, herb and medicinal plant dealers, and ancestor worship, whose practitioners are not tested and do not receive degrees - exists alongside the continent's most advanced medical system.

Three hundred years of colonialism and white rule drove traditional medicine underground, giving its practitioners a reputation as backward, unscrupulous charlatans. But the South African government says that time is over.

None of the healers' AIDS remedies have faced laboratory tests. Nor is it clear whether patients who have been "cured" of AIDS were tested for HIV. But even skeptics acknowledge that traditional medicine, deeply intertwined in African culture and belief systems, is an important part of medical care for the millions of people who believe in it.

That is why the government believes that healers' claims are worth investigating and that their practices deserve proper recognition. In March, the ministry announced that it plans to spend $1 million to investigate claims that traditional healers had found cures for the disease.

A bill being debated by Parliament would register and regulate healers, allowing them to be reimbursed by health insurance companies for their services, just as doctors are. It would also force employers to recognize medical certificates issued by traditional healers for workers seeking sick leave.

The city of Johannesburg has literally brought traditional healers in from the cold. After more than three decades huddled in the shadows of a highway overpass hawking roots, herbs, bark, animal parts and other supplies, the city's traditional medicine dealers are now housed in a gleaming market complex complete with private consultation rooms.

The country's 200,000 healers are also seen as the first line of defense against the spread of AIDS. With deep knowledge of their communities and the respect of citizens, traditional healers could work with doctors, referring patients with serious illnesses to hospitals and assisting patients in taking anti-AIDS drugs.

The South African Medical Association, which represents about 16,000 doctors, welcomes the government's promotion of traditional medicine as a way to create cooperation and trust between doctors and healers, who have long looked at one another with mistrust.

"They should know what we are, and we should know what they are," says Dr. Kgosi Letlape, head of the South African Medical Association.

But critics worry that the government's embrace of traditional medicines in the fight against AIDS will add to the public's confusion about the government's AIDS policies.

Tshabalala-Msimang, the health minister, has expressed skepticism of anti-AIDS drugs, calling them poison. After protests by AIDS activists, the government reluctantly agreed to begin distributing the drugs to the public, but many critics doubt the government's commitment to the program.

Before the national elections last month, opposition parties criticized Tshabalala-Msimang for suggesting that traditional medicines could eventually replace anti-AIDS drugs. She was also ridiculed for advising AIDS sufferers to consume a mixture of lemon juice, olive oil and garlic to stay healthy.

Letlape, of the medical association, says it is not a remedy he would recommend to his patients.

Like all traditional healers' claims, the minister's remedy should be scientifically tested to prove whether it is effective, says Dan Mkhize, a psychiatrist and head of the Traditional, Complementary and Alternative Medicine Center at the University of Natal.

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