Academic journal article Indo - Pacific Journal of Phenomenology

The Intersection of Culture and Science in South African Traditional Medicine

Academic journal article Indo - Pacific Journal of Phenomenology

The Intersection of Culture and Science in South African Traditional Medicine

Article excerpt

South African traditional medicine

The World Health Organization (WHO, 2008), defines traditional medicine as:

The health practices, approaches, knowledge and beliefs incorporating plant, animal and mineral-based medicines, spiritual therapies, manual techniques and exercises, applied singularly or in combination to diagnose, treat and prevent illnesses or maintain well-being.

Traditional medicine is by no means an alternative practice in South Africa, with an estimated 72% of the Black African population in South Africa relying on this form of medicine, accounting for some 26.6 million consumers (Mander, Ntuli, Diederichs, & Mavundla, 2007). These consumers encompass a diverse range of age categories, education levels and occupations. The value of the trade in raw medicinal plant materials in South Africa is estimated to be approximately R520 million per year (in 2006 prices), with the traditional medicinal plants and products trade in South Africa estimated to be worth R2.9 billion per year (Mander et al., 2007).

Scientists have taken advantage of the region's immense botanical diversity with South African research institutions being at the forefront of phytopharmacological studies of South African plants with the aim of developing new allopathic medicines (Light, Sparg, Stafford, & van Staden, 2005). These studies focus predominantly on screening and isolating phytochemicals for specific pharmacological actions. This has resulted in an increasing trend in validating traditional medicine claims from scientific studies, especially for plants with traditional uses for physical ailments, such as plants with antibiotic properties used for infections. One example is the pharmacological validation of uterotonic compounds and activity of Rhoicissus tridentata that is traditionally used in pregnancy to augment labour (Brooks & Katsoulis, 2007). However, the same research validation has not yet occurred for the majority of plants used for spiritual healing in South African traditional medicine. One reason for this may be because the psychological effects from the internal administration of psychoactive plants in humans are more difficult to test, assess and interpret using the scientific method than those producing physical effects. However, I argue in this paper that a more prevalent reason is the culturally ingrained prejudice against traditional medicine and its associated religious or spiritual plant use, which is often deemed irrational, non-empirical and unscientific.

Medicinal plant use in South African traditional medicine occurs on a sliding scale from physical to spiritual uses. There are polar extremes of plants used only externally and exclusively as charms for magical purposes, while others have only physical uses. However, for numerous plants that are administered internally for spiritual healing purposes in South African traditional medicine, there exist mutually inclusive physical, psychological and spiritual therapeutic effects, as in the case of ubulawu plant mixtures (Sobiecki, 2012). This overlapping physical and spiritual medicinal plant use coincides with the African worldview of the co-existing and interdependent relationship between the physical and spiritual nature of sickness, medicines and existence (Petrus & Bogopa, 2007).

One aim of this paper is to investigate examples of spiritual plant use in traditional South African medicine using phytopharmacological studies and anthropological methods. Therefore, it is relevant to include some of the most significant spiritual beliefs held by the indigenous Southern Bantu speaking (hereafter referred to as Southern Bantu for brevity) people of South Africa and how they relate to their spiritual use of medicinal plants.

Some important traditional cultural beliefs of the Southern Bantu speaking people

Bantu refers to the 300-600 ethnic groups in Africa of speakers of Bantu languages, distributed from Cameroon East across Central Africa and Eastern Africa to Southern Africa (Lewis, 2009). …

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