Orality and Medicine: The Efficacy of the Word in the Practice of Therapeutic Cures in Traditional African Medicine

By Ganyi, Francis Mowang; Ogar, Atunka Patrick | Studies in Sociology of Science, September 1, 2012 | Go to article overview
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Orality and Medicine: The Efficacy of the Word in the Practice of Therapeutic Cures in Traditional African Medicine


Ganyi, Francis Mowang, Ogar, Atunka Patrick, Studies in Sociology of Science


Today in most of our traditional African societies, the practice of medicine or medicinal cures outside orthodox medicine is often associated with witchcraft, necromancy or other derogatory associations that are not worthy of mention in so called civilized society. The predominance of western medicine and the prevalence of literacy in most traditional communities have tended to eradicate traditional medical practitioners.

But perhaps the personalities and demeanor of the traditional medicine men themselves can be said to have militated against their practice. Often times these practices are frowned upon in modern day society. They include:

a) Unkempt or dirty environments around their shrines which some believe are part and parcel of their practice but which go against the concept of hygiene and enhancement of good health.

b) The lack of a specific dosage for traditional medicine.

c) The lack of education of traditional medicine men in most societies.

d) The deliberate mystification of traditional medical practice to the consternation of many gives it an aura of fetishism which people abhor and run away from.

e) The fact that traditional medical practice is not easily and willingly imparted to willing learners except through initiation into a code of secrecy which ensures continuity only within a particular lineage or trusted friends.

These obstacles notwithstanding, today there seem to be an increasing interest in shifting from western methods to our indigenous African methods of traditional medical practice. However, this shift seems to manifest more in the area of therapeutic practice particularly psychotherapeutic practices. In this perspective, even though the traditional medical practitioners still uses herbs and other curative agents, emphasis seems to be on "the word" or the potency of the word, just as in many other traditional engagements. The traditional medicine man depends much on the fluency and strength of the word which solicits faith and belief in its potency.

The word consists of chants, invocations, incantations, exhortations, commands and sometimes exorcism. These could be carried on in a mild or harsh manner as the situation demands, or depending on the understanding of the medicine man as per what spirit is involved in the sickness. Examples of these kinds of cures abound in traditional and even modern society, e.g..

a) The case of the priestess of Agbala and her chants to cure Ezinma in Achebe's Things Fall Apart.

b) Prayer meetings of several cultic or even modern day Pentecostal denominations that embark on cures.

c) Atam cultic exorcism practiced among the Bakor and Bokyi in Ogoja and Bokyi Local Government Areas of Cross River State respectively. What is of utmost importance here is the therapeutic effect of the word uttered in the chants, incantations or exorcisms.

The philosophy behind this was expounded by a foremost psychologist Professor Peter O. Ebigbo (1995) in what he called the "African Cosmological Health Model", which he advocated as the African position in psychotherapy. According to the renowned Professor of Psychiatry, the root of the ailments and their cures lies in the African cosmological belief system which links man and all concrete objects to a spirit world. Thus the African has the following characteristics:

a) He is group conscious and addresses the group with his mind and body, thus the medicine man accompanies his curative herbs with his mind through utterances which externalize his wishes. An example of speaking with his body is somatization.

b) The African believes in his world being filed with spirits. To him every concretely existing object or force has a spirit which can become active when invoked. Very important here are the spirits of the ancestors which are believed to be overseeing and protecting their lineages.

c) Over and above these, the African believes in the existence of a supreme God who superintends over everything created by him and accountable to him.

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