Unlocking the potential in traditional health practitioners

Robert Tapfumaneyi examines the debate surrounding traditional health practitioners in Zimbabwe.

By Robert Tapfumaneyi

When it comes to traditional medicine in Zimbabwe the homestead becomes the replica of a central Harare surgery as ‘patients’ jostle for a one-on-one interaction with the ‘doctor’.

Contrary to popular belief that traditional health practitioners are ‘witch doctors’, clients visiting them invest a lot of trust in the traditional concoctions and herbs they are given. They say they prefer traditional, herbal remedies to modern medicines because they are more cost effective and the doctor does not demand money upfront.

Traditional health practitioner Shuvai Mtore, 60, of Makaha in Mudzi district, about 200 kilometres east of Harare, says she is busiest over the weekends and as nightfall approaches.

“Most of my clients prefer evening visits so that they escape public prosecution, which views traditional health practitioners as evil. I am very busy after 5pm because that is when most of my clients come for their regular check-ups and treatment of various ailments,” says Mtore.

Mtore, a mother to eight children and grandmother to more than 29, describes herself as “a herbalist and a dreamer” by calling.

“I started having and interpreting dreams when I was 12-years-old. It all started in Chikwizu, a couple of kilometres away from here, when I visited my grandparents and saw a scared snake while going to fetch water. The snake did not slither away but coiled in front of me and when I narrated this at home I was told that I would be a great herbalist.”

Since assuming this role, Mtore says she has assisted barren couples to have babies (kuuchika as it is called in Shona), healed cancer patients and treated sexually transmitted infections among others.

“There are couples who have travelled from as far as Botswana, Mozambique and even Harare over the years who had been failing to have children but are now proud parents of maybe two or even three children. Ndinouuchika – meaning I have herbs that enhance the fertility of couples – and I have never failed in that department,” she says.

According to research conducted by HelpAge International in Ethiopia, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe to establish the role traditional health practitioners, traditional leaders and community leaders play in health development and HIV/ AIDS services for older persons, there is limited collaboration between traditional and bio-medical health practitioners. The report finds this lack of collaboration stems from mutual mistrust and inadequate knowledge on how the two health care systems can compliment each other.

However, the study argues that close collaboration between traditional and bio-medical health practitioners has the potential to improve access for communities to health services because most communities perceive traditional health practitioners as influential persons who are custodians of their cultures and preservers of their values and norms.

Onias Ndoro, Director of Traditional Medicines at the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare, cites a report by the World Health Organisation that finds 80% of Africans and Asians depend on herbal medicines for primary health care.

Ndoro argues there is a trend for Africans to ‘stigmatize and shun’ African herbs in their raw form yet rush for them once they have been packaged elsewhere.

“African governments are not investing in traditional medicines, and as a country we can identify and screen herbs but lack the capacity to develop those herbs into drugs. Currently, 50% of pharmaceutical drugs are from plants but it is baffling to realise that herbs in their raw form are considered ineffective and evil.

“The health ministry is in the process of setting up an awareness lobby group for traditional medicines after the realisation that the very same herbs that Africans shun in their raw form, once packaged nicely in Asia or Europe, make a u-turn for African markets.

“Herbal medicines generate a lot of income in Asia and Europe and research has shown that the new anti-malaria drugs, developed from the discovery and isolation of artemisia annua l in China, if grown on African soil, [would be]… ten times more potent.”

Elizabeth Mandy Mazicho, a herbalist from Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association (ZINATHA), says Zimbabwe has a huge resource base in terms of how many individuals are able to practice herbal medicine, and the government should invest more in the use of herbal medicines because they can be effective.

She sees the issue as being driven by economics, arguing that there is a tendency for Western countries to “denounce African practices yet… steal the same ideas and package them differently and claim ownership.”

She adds: “The use of traditional herbs is discouraged because bio medical health practitioners risk losing business because they are mainly after profits. We tell our clients to pay after the medicines have yielded the desired outcome.”

Director of Help Age Zimbabwe Priscilar Gavi says there is a need to raise awareness against the notion that anything traditional is somehow evil.

“The tendency within society to associate anything traditional to witchcraft or evil is wrong and there is a need to raise awareness that traditional medicines are not evil. There has been an erosion of traditional practices, some of which are to the benefit of a healthy lifestyle,” says Gavi.

Traditional medicines is the sum total of knowledge, skills and practices based on theories, beliefs and experiences indigenous to different cultures that are used to maintain health as well as to prevent, diagnose, improve or treat physical and mental illnesses. Herbal medicines include herbs, herbal materials, herbal preparations and finished herbal products that contain parts of plants or other plant material as active ingredients.