Traditional Healers in the Nigerian Health Care Delivery System and the Debate over Integrating Traditional and Scientific Medicine

By Offlong, Daniel A. | Anthropological Quarterly, July 1999 | Go to article overview

Traditional Healers in the Nigerian Health Care Delivery System and the Debate over Integrating Traditional and Scientific Medicine


Offlong, Daniel A., Anthropological Quarterly


Relying on experience with a traditional healer, focus group discussions, and interviews with traditional healers, the author analyzes the functions and importance of traditional healers in the health care delivery system of Nigeria. It is concluded that in a society where healing involves not just the curing of disease but also the protection and promotion of human physical, spiritual, and material well-being, traditional healers remain the very embodiment of conscience and hope in their respective communities. The holistic and cathartic nature of their treatment and the fact that in certain places in the country they are the major or only source of health care, make them very important. The author also examines the debate over the possible integration of traditional and scientific medicine. It is concluded that outright integration would be too ambitious and practically impossible but that some form of cooperation is possible, given political will. Regardless of the official government policy on the issue, the two traditions are complementary and Nigerians patronize both of them. [Nigeria, traditional healers, Ibibio, integration of traditional and scientific medicine, health care delivery systems]

Introduction

African traditional healers have been variously referred to as herbalists, native doctors, native healers, traditional doctors, medicine men, witch doctors, among others. The title of "witch doctors" suggests that the singular role of this category of African specialists is to detect witches. Far from it; they do much more. Traditional healers are often the main source from which a large segment of African population receive their health care, especially since "healing" is far more than the curing of disease or illness.

In Nigeria as well as in other developing countries, scientific and traditional medicine exist side by side and the two systems are patronized by health consumers; both complement each other (Oyebola 1981; Warren et al. 1982; Offiong 1991). In certain places the traditional healers are often the only source of health care for between 80-90% of the population. The World Health Organization (WHO) has been quite aware of the problems associated with health care delivery in developing and poor countries of the world. Thus in 1978 it declared the Primary Health Care (PHQ strategy which was to be adopted by the member states. The strategy called for the promotion and development of traditional medicine (WHO 1978). The result has been the enormous interest in the actual and potential role of traditional medical systems in the provision of health services, especially in the poor countries of the developing world (Bishaw 1991). This situation continues to generate debate as to whether traditional and scientific medicine can ever be integrated. Nigeria has been involved in this debate although the government has remained lackadaisical about a clear national policy on the matter.

I seek in this article to share my experience as a clerk to a renowned traditional healer, my uncle. I then describe the functions and therefore the importance of traditional healers in the Ibibio community of southeast Nigeria in particular and in Nigeria in general. Finally, I summarize arguments for and against the integration of traditional medicine into scientific medicine. I begin with brief description of my experience that is germane to this article.

Background

At home, in an Ibibio community in southeastern Nigeria, I had a paternal uncle (whom I will call Oko, not his real name) who was a renowned traditional healer (abia ibok-). Since his compound was directly opposite my father's, this offered me, my brothers and sisters, and sometimes my cousins and friends a great opportunity to watch my uncle's healing operations. Oko was a Methodist convert but when the evangelical zeal of the missionaries prohibited members from engaging in any traditional practices which they branded heathenish, he was one of the first to quit the church to become a full time traditional healer.

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