Mozambique #3 – Visit to a Traditional Healer

Traditional Medicine in Mozambique

This past week we have been talking a lot about the current state of the Mozambican health system, especially with regards to treating and preventing the major causes of death in this region of the world; Malaria and HIV/AIDS. The statisticians indicate that 70% of Mozambicans live in regions of the country deemed “rural”, and that there exists only 365 Medical Doctors in a country of almost 23 million people. This combined with a government that allocates 7.5% of its annual budget to health care, and a mostly uneducated population equals disaster when it comes to medical coverage. The reality is that most people live far away from any type of medical center and many medications and treatments are too expensive for many people to afford. Additionally, many cultural barriers prevent people from seeking western medical treatment, such as widespread skepticism, cynicism and even conspiracy theories mostly centered around the suspicion of white people suppressing Africa. In this environment, the obvious choice for many rural poor is to seek healing from the local traditional medical doctor or “curandeiro”. Usage of curandeiros is so widespread in most parts of the country that most people first seek help from the local medicine man before going to the hospital. Unfortunately there does exist many charlatan curandeiros, and many potentially curable patients have died unnecessarily while under their care. In response to this, the Mozambican government is currently working to formalize traditional medicine as an adjunct to their national healthcare system. They have formed associations of traditional healers that pledge to maintain sanitary practices and work in conjunction with conventional medicine in acute cases of illness that may be better treated by western medicine. I think this is a fantastic initiative by the government and I applaud their desire to maintain an integral part of their culture and integrate traditional knowledge of plants and healing into their health care system. As part of PC training we had a field trip to see the local curandeiro here in Namaacha.

I was very excited to have this opportunity to talk with a traditional healer as I think the work these practitioners do is very important and an integral part of how I approach my job and the possibility of educating people. In the US I think the majority of people take for granted the widespread belief in science, logic and reason as the major determinant of world view. We are so conditioned by our educational system to think of the world as being constructed by atoms and molecules, life as being constructed by cells, illness being caused by viruses, bacteria or parasites, and so on and so forth. The western world definitely holds these views of reality dear, and our medical systems and social systems reflect this. I am not being critical of this, I think that science as a method is an incredibly valuable tool for a society to have. I simply wish to point out our assumptions about reality that we have been conditioned to believe, which stand in stark contrast to how many Mozambicans view the world. Many Mozambicans who did not have the opportunity to attend school, or terminated early, view the world through the lens of animism and live in world of good and bad spirits, energies and witchcraft. Illness is caused by curses and sorcery and people are thought to have spirits inherited from past lives. I make no judgment on the validity of this worldview, and I am eager to learn more. I cannot speak personally yet, but I have heard that this worldview makes explaining technical, scientifically derived information quite difficult, as the audience has a fundamentally different  view of reality than we do. With this in mind, I went to see the curandeiro with a list of questions to try to understand his world a bit better. Until I can see the world through the eyes of Mozambicans, I think my efforts to educate and help will not reach as far as they possibly could.

Me and a group of 12 other volunteers were led into the curandeiros mud and thatch roof hut, which is located on the outskirts of the village on the side of large hill. We sat on the floor amidst an array of bones, bottles, bags, animal skins and jars filled with colored powders and juices; all the clique expectations of a medicine man’s hut! The curandeiro was about 30 years old, youthful in his appearance and spoke confidently of his experience of being a healer. He told of his training period during which he attended some sort of school and was an apprentice of another healer. We asked questions throughout his presentation, which was very interesting. In an attempt to see his fundamental interpretation of reality I tended to ask open ended more philosophically oriented questions. Here are a few that I asked with his general translation from Portuguese. (these are not direct translations but the general ideas that he was conveying)

Evan: In your opinion, what is health?

Curandeiro: (surprised expression) Health is to be well. Health is the ability of a person to function like a normal human being, free from disease, to do their daily work and responsibilities.

Evan: How do the plants function inside of a persons body when you give them as a healing treatment?

Curandeiro: Each plant has its specific function to cure a specific disease. We were taught which plants to use in each situation. Generally the plants work with the different types of energy centers in the body, to help the body fight disease.

Evan: What are the sources of disease?

Curandeiro: Each disease has its own source. Some are physical such as injuries or sore, while others are caused by inhabitation by spirits or bad energies.

Evan: What do you think of modern medicine?

Curandeiro: I think that a system of collaboration and sharing is good. If I have a patient that is also receiving modern medical care I often withhold treatment as the combined effect can be too strong. I also send people to the hospital in certain cases where they would benefit more from conventional treatment.

Evan: What happens to a person when they die?

Curandeiro: Their physical bodies are gone, but their spirits live on, to inhabit other spaces, other bodies of animals, other humans or stay in certain locations. (I interpreted this to be sort of like a belief in reincarnation)

Evan: How was the world made? When?

Curandeiro: I believe the history of the earth is true from the perspective of the Bible. (He would not speak more about this, which I found strange, and to be honest I was really disappointed to hear the bible story again. I experienced a lot of this in Guatemala, where you speak to people with a rich cultural history of their own, only to hear them touting some foreign ideology as a product of colonization.)

Evan: What type of material is the world constructed out of?

Curandeiro: The world is made of minerals, animals, plants and spirits. Water is also an integral part of the world.

So this was a first exposure to the world of the curandeiro, of which I am sure I will have many more experiences as I am interested in working with medicinal plants. I am staying open to experiencing traditional medicine in the Mozambican context and I understand that for many people here, this view of healing and medicine is vitally important. An idea that I got that really stuck with me from a book by Dr. Andrew Weil is that in all of his experiences traveling the world studying different methods of healing there are a few common similarities. First, any system of medicine only works some of the time, in some of the cases. Period. No system of medicine works for everyone. And out of the people that are cured, regardless of treatment, there is one necessary factor; that both the doctor and the patient believe that the medicine will work. This observation really makes me question the role of the mind in the healing process. I definitely believe there is more going on here than our materalistic sciences can demonstrate; but this is a whole separate topic!

Photos are from a recent day trip I took to Maputo, a gory scene of carnage in the museum of natural history and a new monkey friend.

Also, if anyone has any questions they would like me to ask Mozambicans in the streets, One of my strategies to learn and practice portuguese is to talk to people in the streets. So if anyone is curious about the mozambican perspective on something I would be happy to ask around and write about it!


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