African traditional medicine is widely perceived as a form of voodoo medicine, as a survival of some stone age pre-modern illiterate formation that still functions and fulfils medical purposes for Africans. This is, at least, how many anthropologists have viewed the subject. They have argued that African traditional medicine is unlike ‘western medicine’, and then go on to establish how witchcraft and magic is embedded in this ‘unique’ medical practice. African medicine men and women are portrayed as witch doctors – as if the trado-medical profession is about treating and curing witchcraft.
Incidentally, claims by contemporary herbal or traditional medicine men and women in the region reinforce these stereotypes. Uncritical reporting of these claims by the media gives credence to misconceptions of medicinal notions in Africa.
Using the reported claims of a Nigerian filmed actor who later became a traditional healer, I argue for a more balanced and critical reporting of traditional medicine claims.
The Punch of April 20, 2012 has a report on one Chief Jimoh from Ado Ekiti in Southern Nigeria. He was born into a family of traditional healers. His father was a traditional doctor and died at the age of 136. It is not clear how he -Jimoh – was able to know the father’s exact age given the state of record keeping then. But that is by the way.
Jimoh has moved from being a theatre practitioner to being a traditional healer. He explained that treating ‘witchcraft’ was central to the father’s traditional/ herbal medical practice. But he did not give details of how the father treated witchcraft. The medical practice entails ”assisting those seeking for fruits of the womb and those under the yoke of witchcraft and family curses…”. This profession brought Chief Jimoh to Lagos in 1946 but he abandoned it for other pursuits. Now he has returned to the profession.
Jimoh further explains how his medical practice works: “The traditional medicine I do involves attending to those wishing to bear children and battling with witchcraft and family problems. I have Imams and Prophets who I also consult to ensure that anybody who comes to me has his or her problems solved. My clients come from many parts of Nigeria and overseas. I practise in Ado-Ekiti.’’
A skeptical perspective should have been included in this report to provide insights into the woo-woo nature of Jimoh’s trado-medical claim. This is clearly a case of an extraordinary medicinal claim that requires an extraordinary evidence or better in this case an ‘extraordinary reporting’. Many traditional medicine men and women like Jimoh exist and operate in different parts of Africa and seek to promote themselves and attract customers by making reckless and irresponsible cure claims. They go to the extent of claiming to cure ‘witchcraft’ and all forms of ailments.
The reporter should have sought out the views of a medical scientist or a skeptic which would have given some balance to the story. It would have been enriching to know what Jimoh meant by witchcraft. How does he diagnose witchcraft? What medication does he use? How did he come about the medication? How did he come about his knowledge of disease and medicine? What has traditional medicine got to do with family problems? What medicine does he administer to solve or ‘cure’ family problems or remove family curses?
I think the main question is: Do African medicine men and women really want the world to take them seriously? Then they need to rethink the idea of claiming to cure witchcraft. Witchcraft is superstition. Witchcraft is not a disease and has no basis in medical science. But still many traditional medicine men and women openly advertise witchcraft as one of the ‘diseases’ they cure, and local media uncritically promote witchcraft cure-claims. There has been vigorous campaigns in many African countries for the recognition of African Traditional Medicine. I think this campaign will not be considered credible till African trado-medical cure claims are critically reported, and yes, till African traditional medicine is dissociated from witchcraft and magic.