6(B). People’s experiences of traditional healing


 We have to live with quackery.

President of the Traditional Health Practitioners’ Association of Zambia

Traditional healers are common in Zambia. They openly advertise their talents in solving all types of life problems: from bad breath to erectile dysfunction. Their location in the heart of local communities and their immediate availability and readiness to attend to complaints means there is high demand for their services, including in dealing with mental health issues, and particularly in rural areas where mental health services are non-existent.

Some interviewees were reluctant to tell monitors that they had attended a traditional healer. This may be because conventional healthcare practitioners frown on traditional practices. Interviewees may have wanted to avoid being perceived as primitive for using healers. They may not have wanted to reveal their experiences of humiliation especially by traditional healers whose reputation are increasingly characterised by the general public as ‘quackery’.87

Many Zambian communities use traditional healers as they offer support in times of crisis by simply being available and offering something plausibly useful. Research on traditional healing in Ghana has found that traditional healers offer counselling and community support which can enable personal empowerment.88

Monitors spoke with the president of the Traditional Health Practitioners’ Association of Zambia (THPAZ). He was keen to emphasise that, “Western colleagues are overwhelmed by the numbers of people with mental health issues. I can counsel for one hour, but they have to see 20 people in an hour. Valium and sleeping may not be the only solution. Counselling is paramount.”

The variance in practice of traditional healers in Zambia is startling. Some healers act unethically: they provide no effective healing, a point acknowledged by the THPAZ president who estimated that,

[s]lightly more than half of our 40,000 members are doing a good job, approximately 22,000. The others are spoiling. Because of the economic situation our profession is infiltrated by cheats who masquerade as healers. We have to live with quackery.

There may be more quacks, as many traditional healers are not members of THPAZ – it is impossible to estimate how many of these non-registered ‘healers’ operate in the country. The Association has a complaints mechanism but its president acknowledged that it was insufficient, partly because the association’s district representatives do not want to lose revenue. The president told monitors that no traditional healer in Zambia has been sued for malpractice, and there has never been a prosecution for abuse of people with mental health issues.

Monitors spoke to several people who have been treated by traditional healers. The majority said they were taken by a relative rather than deciding to go there themselves.89 Traditional healers said that relatives give consent, explaining that patients claim they are not sick. This was confirmed as a typical practice by the THPAZ president. A Ministry of Health representative told monitors that, “it’s up to the relatives now who are making decisions on behalf of these patients. So, on that one, we can’t say it’s voluntary because it’s the relatives who are making decisions over their relative”. It appears that a person’s rights are denied by giving greater importance to the views of relatives than of people with mental health issues themselves.

Photo: A traditional healer in Zambia, 1 November 2012. © MDAC.Photo: A traditional healer in Zambia, 1 November 2012. © MDAC.

How do traditional healers treat mental health issues?

Then I started complaining that I’m seeing visual hallucinations. Then she [traditional healer] said, ‘Then we’ll start putting medicine in your eyes. Then we will cut your hair and put a tattoo.’ And the tattoos were all over my body […] It was painful. First, drugs were very painful, the drugs for the eyes, I would sleep the whole day not feeling well.

48-year old woman with a mental health issues

They gave her water and medicines which were to be boiled […] First she was tattooed on the head and herbs rubbed in, then some of it was cooked and she was covered with a blanket and the hot pot placed under the cover. Then the hot steam would spread in there and she would sweat, but still nothing happened/changed.

40-year old spouse of a woman with a mental health issues

When you get there sometimes they say you should go find and eat a small lizard, if not that then you need to catch and eat a small snake. When you eat that snake, while it’s alive, that’s when you’ll get better […] They wanted to tattoo me but my mother refused.

18-year old woman with a mental health issues

Monitors were told that some healers ask patients to do tasks which are impossible – like eating a live snake or lizard – in order to get money from them but without actually having to do anything. The majority of people monitors interviewed were dissatisfied with treatments by traditional healers. They said these treatments did not improve their health, and they cost considerable sums of money:

We went to four different healers, but as he [her husband] didn’t improve, we resorted to continuing at the hospital. There was no benefit to going to a traditional healer, just cost. We spent over 1,100 Kwacha [132 EUR]. It had been my decision to take him as people told me that it was witchcraft affecting my husband.

Wife of an older man with mental health issues

We first tried a traditional healer in 2007. We’ve been to three in total. They didn’t help. So instead I just locked her in the house – for over a year. Then someone said to take her to the hospital. We saw the first healer for two months, but then he just left. I’d given him money, a blanket and a bowl. The second one wanted to take her to a graveyard, to dig a hole there, and to wash her in it, to wash the ghost out. I didn’t want that. The third one was for six months. We had to sell things to pay for that one: our TV, plates. He took her clothes, all the pots, and a dish.

Mother of a young woman with epilepsy and mental health issues

We took him to 25 traditional healers. It’s hard to estimate the financial cost of all this as there were payments and also we had to get and give animals – including two cows. The government should arrest these people as it’s a kind of stealing. People are being cheated.

Grandmother of a young man with mental health issue

Photo: A small lizard © MDAC 2014.Photo: A small lizard © MDAC 2014.

87 Very few interviewees indicated that they would in the future look to use a traditional healer. This may in part be due to MDAC/MHUNZA interviewees not being fully representative as they predominantly came through links with psychiatric facilities, and members of Mental Health Users Network of Zambia.

88 Astrid Berg, “Ancestor reverence and mental health in South Africa”, (Transcultural Psychiatry 40 (2003):194–207); Ae-Ngibise et al, The MHAPP Research Programme Consortium, “’Whether you like it or not people with mental problems are going to go to them’: A qualitative exploration into the widespread use of traditional and faith healers in the provision of mental health care in Ghana”, supra note 71; Olaniyi Bojuwoye, “Traditional Healing Practices in Southern Africa: Ancestral Sprits, Ritual Ceremonies, and Holistic Healing”, supra note 71.

89 This is similar to experiences of use of psycho-social disability services in other countries e.g. Barbara J. Burns, Kimberly Hoagwood and Patricia J. Mrazek, “Effective treatment for mental disorders in children and adolescents” (Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review 2 (1999): 199–254).

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