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The Traditional Way

Patients in Ghana Dissatisfied With the Medical System Are Turning to Traditional Healers to Treat Ailments

June 08, 1998|ANN M. SIMMONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ASSA WEST, Ghana — An occasional health report from The Times' foreign bureaus

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Ghanaian priest David Angamah stood over Efua Badu, resting a Bible on her head as she sat in an open courtyard, her eyes tightly closed. Angamah recited the Lord's Prayer and the Apostles' Creed in loud, heated tones, accompanied by a high-pitched chorus of responses from assistants adorned in red dresses and head scarves.

When the praying was over, Badu was bathed from head to foot with a mixture of blessed tap water and "Florida water" cologne, her eyes now wide-open and filled with gratitude and relief.

Badu had suffered weeks of severe hemorrhaging and turned to a traditional healer after a transfusion and 15 days at a local hospital failed to cure her. After seven weeks under Angamah's care, Badu maintains the bleeding has stopped.

"I believed that he could cure me," said Badu, 40, a resident of the Wassa West mining community in Ghana's rural Western Region. "I realized the bleeding was not normal, but it had something to do with the spiritual."

Frustrated with the poorly run national health system, more and more Ghanaians--possibly as many as a third of this West African nation's 18 million people--are seeking treatment from spiritualists, herbalists and prescribers of chemical concoctions.

But what is truly notable is that international aid workers and many in the Ghanaian government are now treating the traditional healers as a resource to be embraced rather than discredited.

The healers command a unique trust among many Ghanaian communities, their services are affordable, and sometimes their methods help alleviate pain--reason enough, many believe, to encourage the conventional health sector to collaborate with nonconventional practitioners.

"People in the community really listen to traditional healers," said Theodore Avotri, a local government health official. "If people have confidence in them and listen to them, then they are an asset in educating people."

And that education could help stem the spread of disease, particularly sexually transmitted ailments--caused by black magic, many believe--that have seen a recent upsurge here.

"If an herbalist tells a person that AIDS is real, then he is going to believe it," Avotri said. "The potential is there for these people to really help."

Bernard Boateng-Duah, a doctor at a local government hospital, concurs.

"Even if you had hospitals or clinics every five kilometers, people would still use traditional healers," he said. "They are more efficient, often more humane and less expensive."

That sentiment is not unanimous. Some Christian groups accuse traditional healers of doing the devil's work and of capitalizing on people's ignorance, fear and superstition.

Other detractors argue that the healers' presence allows the government to shirk its responsibility for providing Ghanaians with reliable and affordable health care.

And there is fear that traditionalists, who peddle homemade drugs, could distribute potentially deadly potions.

But the healers defend their methods.

"I feel my work is important because I'm saving lives and protecting people from diseases," said Malam Yakubu, an herbalist since 1977 who says he inherited his powers from his dead father, who appears in visions to advise him. "I've treated government officials, students, businessmen, diplomats, schoolchildren. People come to me from as far away as Ivory Coast, Benin and Nigeria."

Added Angamah, "I'm saving people, and I'm helping the government."

Problems Plague Health System

Ghana's health system is, indeed, in disarray. Its hospitals are plagued by shortages of drugs, medical supplies and equipment. Overburdened and poorly paid, many doctors and nurses lack incentive and are accused of being insensitive.

By Western standards, health care here is inexpensive--patients pay the equivalent of about $10 for a medical consultation and drugs. But many of the country's poor have problems footing the bill. Unemployment is high, the minimum daily wage is $1.20, and there is no system of medical insurance.

By contrast, traditional healers are well-regarded in their communities and often know their patients personally. They rarely demand payment upfront, instead allowing patients to pledge what they can.

Supporters claim that traditional healers can cure many ailments, including prostrate enlargement, infertility, epilepsy, malaria, even insanity.

The treatments typically include potions made from boiled tree bark, weeds and herbs, and homemade chemical brews. Tribal priests combine Christian prayers and sermons--introduced here by missionaries--with elaborate rituals of ancient African songs and dances. Alcoholic libations are normally offered to the spirits of ancestors, though many nonconventional spiritual leaders say they consider only the Christian God their savior.

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