Traditional African Medicine – ‘Muti’, Sangoma, Inyanga

Traditional African medicine in South Africa has made great strides in the past few years. Now that traditional African healers are accepted as informal health care workers, there is talk of consultations and medicines being paid for by medical aids in South Africa sometime in the future. With some 80% of South Africans utilising the services of traditional healers, traditional African medicine cannot be left out in the cold for much longer.

What is traditional African medicine?

Traditional African medicine involves the use of herbal concoctions and traditional rituals to treat a patient. There are two main types of traditional healers in South Africa – the sangoma and the inyanga. Sangomas generally rely on rituals and traditional practices to treat a patient’s ailments while an inyanga uses parts of plants (herbs) and animal parts for therapeutic purposes. Both types of traditional healers may employ some methods of divination to diagnose the patient and decide upon the most appropriate course of treatment.

This divination may involve ‘throwing the bones’ where animal bones and trinkets are tossed and the orientation is then ‘read’ by the healer. Other practitioners may contact ancestor spirits to guide them accordingly. A herb known as imphepho (Helichrysum odoratissimum) may be burned to assist with communicating with the ancestor spirits.

Based on the guidance from the ancestor spirits, the healer will prescribe the relevant rituals or herbal concoction which is known as ‘muti’. Most traditional African herbal medicines are infusions – a combination of herbs are boiled and the brew is taken as prescribed. Other medicines may be used as inhalants when combined with boiling water.

Modern Traditional African Medicine

The availability of traditional African medicines has increased significantly over recent years with herbal brews now available in many pharmacies and retail stores. Most are available as infusions. The herbal combinations differ among practitioners but a concerted effort is being made to standardise the prescription of African herbs for different ailments.

Since the combination is dependent on an individual’s practitioner’s ‘message’ from the ancestor spirits, it is difficult to reach a common consensus among healers on the use of each herb. However studies across South Africa on the medicinal properties of African plants aims to identify pharmacologically active ingredients within these herbs that may prove effective in the treatment of certain diseases.

Traditional African Medicine and HIV/AIDS

The market has been flooded with traditional African medicines for the treatement of HIV/AIDS. From immune boosters to detox concoctions and purgatives, traditional African medicine has found a niche market in South Africa. Given the high incidence of HIV/AIDS in the country and the cautious attitude towards ARV’s  due to the ever changing HIV/AIDS myths, many South Africans believe that traditional African medicines are more effective. Many traditional healers marketing their own brand of immune boosters have made claims of a ‘cure’ for HIV/AIDS. Although none of these concoctions have been proven to be effective when subjected to scientific testing, this has not stopped other healers from also making such bold claims and marketing their own products.

Government efforts to educate those on HIV/AIDS treatment about the potential dangers of using herbal products while taking ARV’s (antiretrovirals) has also met with some resistance. Although the possibility of drug interactions may render some ARV’s less effective when used in conjunction with herbal mixtures, some South Africans believe this is a conspiracy to undermine traditional African medicine. Many South Africans are more cautious about ARV’s, despite clinical evidence, and are more likely to believe the promises made by traditional healers. This has led to poor patient compliances in some quarters with patients stopping ARV’s to use traditional medicines or using herbal mixtures simultaneously. Traditional beliefs have also contributed to a delay in starting ARV’s much to the detriment of the patient.

Traditional African Medicine in South Africa

Traditional African medicine is not as yet considered part of mainstream medicine in South Africa. Unlike some countries where complementary systems of medicine like homeopathy and acupuncture are now accessible in clinics and hospitals, South Africa has been slow to follow suit. Complementary medicine in South Africa is still considered as alternative therapies to conventional medicine. While the consultation and treatment for some complementary therapies like homeopathy, phytotherapy (herbal medicine) and traditional Chinese medicine are now covered by medical aids, traditional African medicine has not as yet enjoyed this level of acceptance.

Traditional African medicine is undoubtedly here to stay and with time, the training and regulation of traditional healers may follow the path of other complementary systems of medicine available in South Africa. Until then traditional African medicine will remain a part of African culture that is often frowned upon by the medical fraternity and other cultures who are ignorant about its uses.