Western Medicine And African Traditional Health And Social Care Essay

In this paper a comparison of Western medicines and African traditional medicines shall be made. The purpose of this paper is to identify similarities and differences between Western and African conceptions of diseases, cure and effective patient care.

According to Germov (2007, p. 8) Western Medicine is “the conventional approach to medicine in western societies, based on the diagnosis and explanation of illness as a mulfunction of the body’s biological mechanisms.” It encompasses a range of health care practices evolved to maintain and restore health by the prevention and treatment of illness Hewson (1998). WHO defines Traditional medicine as “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.”

Traditional medicine that has been adopted by other populations outside its own culture is often termed alternative or complementary medicine (WHO, 2008).

WHO claimed that primary healers in traditional African medicine are midwives, herbalist and diviners. Diviners are responsible for determining causes of sickness by the ancestral spirits (WHO, 2008). Midwives use herbs and indigenous plants in aiding pregnancy and childbirth (WHO, 2008). Herbalists use animal, plants and mineral based medicines to cure diseases (WHO, 2008). Herb market and herb trading is a very common practice in many African countries (Okpako, 2006)

Traditional African culture believe that good health means a correct relationship between people and their supernatural environment. There are strong spiritual aspects to traditional African medicine, with a widespread belief among practitioners that psycho-spiritual aspects must be addressed before medical aspects. Among the traditional healers, the ability to diagnose an illness is considered a gift from both God and the practitioner’s ancestors. A major emphasis is placed on determining the root cause underlying any sickness or bad luck. Illness is said to stem from lack of balance between the patient and his or her environment. Diviners may use plants not only for healing purposes but also to control weather and events. In addition to plants, traditional African healers may employ charms, incantations and casting of spells. They are also skilled in psychotherapy and counselling.

African healing systems recognise the influence of the mind on the human well being. They recognise the negative emotions such as fear, guilt and hate can lead to illness. Rituals are undertaken to appease the angered ancestral spirits, patients need to make confessions inorder for the spirits to forgive them and be well. The rituals accompanying the use of herbal medicine is referred to as “incantation”.

Incantation is a collection of carefully chosen words used to bring healing effect or resolving emotional conflict in the mind of the patient. Spirits of the ancestors protect their living descendants, however ancestors demand from their descendants strict adherence to the moral laws laid down. An immoral act for example incest is believed to annoy the spirits resulting in serious illness or misfortune.

Makinde (1988) claimed that “through African traditional medicine a diagnosis is reached through spiritual means and a treatment is prescribed, usually consisting of an herbal remedy that has not only healing abilities, but symbolic and spiritual significance”. Traditional African medicine, with its belief that illness is not derived from chance occurrences, but through spiritual or social imbalance, differs greatly from Western medicine, which is technically and analytically based (Makinde, 1988).

According to WHO, 80% of the African population depends on traditional medicine for primary health care. In Ghana, Mali, Nigeria and Zambia, 60% of children with high fever resulting from malaria use herbal medicine at home. Lovell (2009) claimed that individuals suffering from pain, anxiety, depression, headaches and fatigue use alternative medicine. WHO estimates that several African countries practice traditional birth with the help of traditional midwives who uses indigenous plants to aid childbirth.

WHO (2008) claimed that 70% to 80% of the population in western countries has used some form of alternative or complementary medicine for example acupuncture.

As noted by Germov (2007) there are varied reasons why alternative medicine is so popular at the expense of western medicine. When people get sick they need to know the causes of the illness, suffering or even death (Germov, 2007). In Western medicine, the traditional view that illness was caused by spiritual evil is no longer valid. Alternative medicine that have an explanation to causes of illnesses and suffering have a greater appeal (Germov, 2007).

The desire to achieve a more holistic form of care may be a motivating factor as to why patients choose traditional medicine (Lovell, 2009).

In most African countries, drugs are out of reach to many people as they do not have the money to buy them. The only solution available is to resort to traditional medicine as it is cheap and reliable.

Most African people are so skeptical to try western medicine. The main reason is that they are afraid to try something new and prefer to continue using their old way of seeking medical help that is the use of traditional medicine.

As stated by Germov (2007) people have lost trust in western medicine. Many toxins found in the drugs have drove people away from the use of it. People have also lost trust in scientific experts, they blame them on almost all the environmental problems such as global warming, oil spills and even acid rain.

Germov (2007) claimed that there is a good relationship between ‘personal’ healer and patient. Personal healers take their time to listen and provide tailor made treatment to the individual client. By so doing they create a strong bond which can lead up to trust and loyalty.

Wilcox & Bodeker (2004) reported that in most African countries the rise in drug resistances and problems in accessing effective anti -malarial drugs in both remote and underprivileged areas has forced people to resort to traditional medicine as their source of treatment.

Disadvantages of western medicines over alternative medicine

Makinde (1988, p.200) claimed that toxins found in western medicines is driving people away from the use of it. Some people get reactions from antibiotics . The relationship between the patient and the therapist is more important.

Disadvantages of African traditional medicine

There is an inadequate evidence base for traditional therapies and products. There is also lack of cooperation between traditional medicine providers and western medicine practitioners.

Why use traditional medicine?

There is lack of trust on the use of western medicine by many African people. A research was conducted and the results show that the quality of services, treatment-related costs as well as the need to maintain social support networks which can be negatively affected by HIV-related stigma (Van Asten, Cairncross, Jaffer, Junghanss, Stuyft and Walter, 2010).

(Pearce, 2009) claimed that there is a significant number of parents in the United Kingdom who are using traditional and complementary medicine as a remedy for their children’s ills. They use honey, herbs and spices. Aresearch was made and more than 30%of parents admitted using traditional medicine.

Friction is evident between ‘Western’ medicines or biomedicines that look at ‘material causation’ to understand and treat an illness; and traditional medicine that generally looks towards the ‘spiritual’ origin such as witchcraft and displeasure by ancestors in order to cure an ailment.23 There has been an array of media reports of traditional healers claiming to have a cure for AIDS or submitting their patients to dangerous or ineffective treatments. Munk writes that some traditional healers view HIV/AIDS as a “development of an old disease that can be treated by TH [Traditional healers] only”. 25 Conditions such as ilumbo, umeqo and ncunsula exhibit the same type of symptoms as AIDS-related illnesses, while their origins are said to be found in bewitchment and infidelity. These can be ‘cured’ by traditional healers by purgative methods and enemas, which facilitate the polluting essence to leave the body. If the symptoms are gone, then the patient is considered cured.26 Amongst some people in Africa, “it is believed that if a sick person does not obtain treatment and dies, his spirit will cause further disease”.27 It is important to take note of the fact that traditional healers, traditional medicine and belief systems of sickness and health can vary from region to region, and from clan to clan.

A number of traditional healers have seen a lucrative opportunity of ‘curing’ people living with HIV/AIDS (PWAs) from HIV/AIDS, in the absence of a cure by biomedicine and where a number of developing countries have not been able to provide anti-retroviral medication or adequate health care to those living with HIV/AIDS. Two case studies are offered to illustrate the ‘AIDS opportunism’ or ‘AIDS entrepreneurship’ displayed by some traditional healers:

25 The WHO describes the problems related to clinical data on traditional medicines in the following way:

The quantity and quality of the safety and efficacy data on traditional medicine are far from sufficient to meet the criteria needed to support its use worldwide. The reasons for the lack of research data are due not only to health care policies, but also to a lack of adequate or accepted research methodology for evaluating traditional medicine. It should also be noted that there are published and unpublished data on research in traditional medicine in various countries, but further research in safety and efficacy should be promoted, and the quality of the research improved. 45


The use of western and african traditional medicine depends on an individual’s beliefs and culture. It also depends on the availability of funds to seek treatment. In Africa most people cannot afford to source western medicine mainly because it is very expensive and so they resort to their traditional medication mainly because it is cheaper.