Raising the Dust Chapter Reflections

Chapter Five: Traditional Medicine Practice.

This month’s article begins to uncover what the data revealed. The data was analysed after I returned from fieldwork, but like I mentioned last month, data analysis is an ongoing process, that is deeply embedded with, and in, the fieldwork experience.

The first of the data chapters presents a discussion of traditional medicine, as practiced in two areas of Mulanje Mountain, in the South of Malawi. To get a first-hand feel for local practices, I made an appointment for a consultation with a nearby traditional healer. Wondering around the rural marketplace, I came across a traditional medicine practice, but without an attending healer. I was able to arrange a consultation though through a young man who said he was a relative. The healer attended at the agreed time but he had clearly been communicating with the ‘spirits’ because the first thing I noticed was a clear empty bottle lying on the floor of his mud clinic and a strong smell of alcohol. Despite his intoxication, through his relative, he was able to instruct me on what I needed to do to keep safe and well and achieve success in my research goals. He gave me a small bundle of bark wrapped carefully in thread to carry with me and also a small brown paper package of tiny leaves and flower petals. Through the interpreter, he told me to soak these dry herbs in body oil and then dab the infusion on my wrists before heading out. At a cost of around $7.00 I left his clinic both saddened by his obvious intoxication and also reassured in my work.


Image 5.1: Doctor Franklin’s clinic in the side lane of the Chitakale Market

The two major aspects that underlie traditional medicine are; the spiritual and the herbal. Traditional medicine brings together these two fundamental aspects of life, the spiritual and the material. Traditional medicine is a holistic practice, that seeks to bring about balance and harmony in all aspects of life, through (inter) relationship. So whilst I interviewed men and women, of all ages, in two different area of the mountain, with some clear differences in how the villages were set up and how people lived, these were the essential aspects of practice for both of my research groups in the two areas of the study.

It is interesting that whilst there were distinct categories of practice, that being the herbal and spiritual, those healers who defined themselves as spiritual healers, also talked about making herbal remedies for their patients. Those who described themselves as herbalists, mostly talked about the spiritual elements of their practices and beliefs. In fact, almost all the healers I interviewed in both groups described how the ancestors had lead them to become a healer. This was an essential aspect of their development as healers. Ancestors communicate with people in different ways. For instance, some healers said that at one point in their life, they had become sick, and then had started having dreams that had directed them to do certain things, sometimes even instructing them on which specific herbs to collect in the forest. These ailments can be of spiritual/mental nature, or they can be physical. The type of sickness is not important but generally, it relates to something being out of balance in the person’s life and relationships. Generally, it is a person’s deceased direct relative like a parent, or grandparent who will appear to a person when they are sick, telling them which herbs to go and collect in the forest to help heal themselves. Once they are healed, they can then begin healing others. Not all illness is physical and one female healer described how her “head was not working proper”. She said she felt driven to literally “run” to a traditional healer. She did this and they directed her to lay a feast and invite others to share in it. She said she recovered from her state and after receiving guidance, used her experience to start helping others who were sick. Some people are well when they start dreaming, and receiving directions on what to do and what to collect to help heal others. Some said that they ignored these dreams but they recurred and recurred until they payed attention to them. There is a great deal of respect given to the messages that come to people through their dreams and healers refer to these communications as “the wisdom”. There is thus a strong spiritual base to all aspects of traditional medicine, including a belief in the importance of respecting the ancestors; spirituality infuses all aspects of a healers life, regardless of their particular religious beliefs.

Herbalists did also emphasise the other important aspect of how they became healers, that being taught, usually, but not always, by a close relative. Herbal medicine knowledge is generally inherited in this way, but there are times when a close friend or other community member will pass on their knowledge and practices. Although in research, there is a tendency to want to find clear categories and distinctions. I found that in this context, there was a lot of overlapping, in knowledge, practices and in people’s beliefs. It is fair to say, that in my research context, all people practice some kind of traditional medicine.

Everyone knows which herbs to use to treat everyday illness. Parents, in particular, women, hold this knowledge and become the primary dispensers of household health. Interestingly, both men and women practice the same kind of traditional medicine, including treating fertility. The third category of practice that can be seen as a specialist practice is that of traditional birth attendance, and through cultural norm and practices, this is predominantly, yet not exclusively, the domain of women. Whilst in some places, only older women are allowed to practice as traditional healers and birth attendants, I encountered women of all ages practicing these skills. This third category, the practice of traditional birth attendance, became of great interest to me and I devoted a whole chapter to it. Chapter six, reflected on in next month, will explores this interesting topic.

For this chapter I looked at the overall practices and beliefs and one of the things that stood out was the element of witchcraft. To understand this, we need to look back at colonial events and understand how the past has influenced how witchcraft is practiced and perceived. For instance, none of the traditional healers I interviewed described themselves as witchdoctors, yet Morris, who has studied traditional medicine extensively in my research area, over a period of time, suggests that the original term ‘witchdoctor’ is actually more appropriate because the traditional medical practitioner is a doctor, “and in fact much of his time and energy is devoted to basic therapy, to the treatment of ‘diseases’ whether physical, psychosomatic or psychiatric” (1996:161)[i]. Changes in people’s beliefs, brought about through colonisation and imperialism, have had a significant influence on how witchcraft is perceived and how people practice. To this day, traditional medicine is characterised by the belief that illness can be caused by a breakdown in either the material or spiritual world. The role of the traditional healer is thus to restore and protect a person’s health in the context of caution and care of the spiritual and material aspects of life.

To explain, on my first visit Nessa village, the counterpart told me about the

‘Afiti’ [who] were witch doctors. They transformed themselves at night through divination but you wouldn’t recognise them. He said if you saw such people in the street they would look just like him, but they could cast a spell on you and kill you. He said that they were ‘not good’, but there were also spiritual mediums and they could help to protect you from witchcraft because if you got sick from the witchdoctors’ curse, then they could give you medicine. They would get you to make a sacrifice out of flour. (At first I thought he said “flower”). You could cast a spell with the flour and then you would be protected from the witchcraft and you would start to get better. (Fieldwork Diary, 31 May 2012)

Relationship with both the human and spiritual world are core to the principles, practices and beliefs of traditional medicine and they are still a part of the everyday knowledge, practices beliefs of people. This of course creates tensions and this was most evident in both peoples religious and health outlooks. To understand these tensions, we need to look back to the so called “enlightenment” period in Europe, between 1300 and 1700, when thousands of suspected ‘witches’ were executed in the so called burning times. The Witchcraft Act of 1735 outlawed these persecutions but during this period, almost all existing knowledge about plants, healing and folk medical knowledge was condemned and some of it was lost entirely. The Witchcraft Act of 1911 was applied in a similar spirit in Malawi, whilst the country was still under British colonial rule. The Witchcraft Act of 1911 likewise prohibits any individual from proclaiming that they have witchcraft powers themselves, or from publicly declaring that someone else is a witch. As stated traditional medicine is deeply embedded in the beliefs that illness is an imbalance in a person’s world, or in some cases a discord in a relationship, be that a spiritual or material one, and thus all illness requires protection, and in a sense living in the right way, and doing the right thing in a wide sense. It is the traditional healers calling to facilitate this healing process.

This holistic aspect of traditional medicine is what interests me most. Here we see that all holistic healers, be they indigenous, traditional or complimentary western healers, fundamentally seek to restore harmony, to facilitate the redress of imbalance and to encourage our clients to be responsible for their health, and their actions, in general. In the context of my research, we see men and women, young and old and from different ethnic and religious backgrounds who are all seeking to heal themselves, heal the unwell people in their villages and, more broadly, help their communities. This is why they are registered as traditional healers. Just like holistic healers in other places they belong to groups, local associations and also many have national registration, and in a world where the biomedical model is favoured by government, this recognition is important regardless of what type of traditional medicine is practiced, spiritual or herbal. The favouring of the medical model by the government in Malawi creates ongoing tensions for healers.

What stood out to me was the ways in which all traditional medicine is learned or acquired, and the ways in which it is passed down. As a traditional knowledge, just as it is passed on through the spirits and through been taught by family and close friends, so it is passed on to future generations. This is part of and maintains the interrelated and perpetual cycle of wisdom that is fundamental to traditional knowledge. Most of the traditional healers who I interviewed were teaching other, mostly younger family members by taking them out the forest with them when they collected herbs. Mostly this was an informal arrangement but one or two were either completing an apprenticeship and also there were those who took a more structured approach to teaching others.

Not long before I left my field, I caught up with the young interpreter of the healer I consulted with early on. He confirmed that the healer had a serious drinking problem, from which he insisted he would never recover. Without any local services, unfortunately he was probable right. The man was a former refugee who had escaped the protracted civil war in neighbouring Mozambique. He may have had a drinking problem but he had survived and was providing a service to his community. An often overlooked aspect of traditional medicine is its preventative aspects. I found that traditional healers, despite their skills and limitations, their particular religious beliefs, their ethnicity, their age, their sex and their gendered roles within the home, they are making a positive and meaningful contribution to their community. In a place with an exceptionally low life expectancy rate, many of them are well in old age. In a place where poverty prevails, and even the basics are beyond the means of many, traditional medicine provides not an “alternative” form of health care but a tried and trusted means of getting and staying well.

Dr Theresa Jones (PhD) is an intuitive counsellor, incorporating holistic principles and energy healing in her practice, Inner Sense Intuitive Counselling Services. You can contact her on 0458268605.

[i] Morris, B. (1996). Chewa Medical Botany: A Study of Herbalism in Southern Malawi. Hamburg: International African Institute.