Healers at Face Value



Health care is one of the most debatable issues in Ethiopia. It has many faces that vary with tradition, religion and science. What seems to dominate the sphere, however, are traditional and religious practices. This has a lot to do with the lack of access to quality health care by modern service providers.


Traditional healers often keep a list of ingredients and herbs in containers nearby, to subscribe to those that come to them with various ailments. Most also grow plants like kosso, a popular component, in their backyards.

When it comes to health care, the Ethiopian laity seems to have no equal, in terms of time spared to share ‘expertise’. By simply relating the pain of different body parts, one can get a list of remedies before even describing all of the symptoms.

In almost every case, there is a close friend or relative whose experience can be quoted with full confidence, as a basis for diagnosis.

God fearing folks usually suggest a few places where one can go for a bottle or two of holy water, which are to be taken on an empty stomach to rid the individual of pain. The source of the holy water, by the way, is determined by casting lots. In Addis Abeba, it could be anyone of the following churches: Entoto Mariam, Kidane Mihret or Metmiku Yohannes.

Yet, not all people are God-fearing. There are those that may recommend certain tablets, injections or syrups, simply because they have found it curative for an ailment with similar symptoms.

Some traditional healers diagnose individuals after a brief glance and hasten to list food items that should be consumed, along with ingredients that are believed to have medicinal properties. Individuals that complain of stomach aches are usually advised to consume large amounts of minced raw meat, mixed with berebere, a powdered red pepper. The hope is that bacteria harboured inside the intestine, will be destroyed by the spicy combination. Another well known remedy is kosso; a pint of the leaf is brewed in water and drank at dawn, so that one can be well enough to consume chicken stew by dinner time.

Others with superstitious inclinations are quick to jump to supernatural causes when people are sick. They allege that evil spirits have caused the illness and recommend subjects to visit a “guru” or witch-doctor for healing. The guru may look up potential cures by consulting the stars, or alternatively, by referring to his private notebook.

Most of these witch-doctors function nocturnally, when near complete silence reigns. They have special bands that beat drums and ululate in intervals, whilst a small audience sings a special tune.

In the end, the verdict is pronounced. More often than not, a woman in the neighbourhood is pointed out as the cause for the illness. In some cases there might be a number of women fitting the generic description offered by the witch-doctor, and thus. the case remains unsolved.

The prescriptions can sometimes be very obscure; a ram with a pair of brick-coloured, bow-shaped horns or a rooster with extravagant feathers, may be circulated three times around the head of the subject and thrown away like a sling ball; with the belief that any stain of sickness could be shaken off just as easily.

Modern health care practice in Ethiopia was promoted during the reign of Emperor Menelik. Foreign doctors were looked upon with a great deal of skepticism after the Wuchale Treaty Article 17 was misconstrued, and the monarchy was forced to use its own name to promote modern services in the hospitals that were open.

It then took decades for Ethiopian nationals; the likes of Asrat Woldeyes (Prof) and Paulos Kenea (MD), to attain acceptance and gain the confidence of the public. All this despite their formal education and accolades for outstanding performances at an international level.

Over the years, Ethiopia has travelled a long way in the field of modern health care; both in availing more and better equipped health care facilities and improving services. But, there is still a long way to go before the number of facilities and medical staff are commensurate with the growing demand of Ethiopian citizens – taking the obvious polarisation of the haves and the have-nots into consideration.

The population seeking health care is now at a crossroads between going back to traditional healing practices and looking forward to modern medical treatment. One of the most prominent traditional healers, Mammo Haile a.k.a Dr Mamo, who had been struggling to establish an association of traditional healers, with recognition from the government to establish a research centre, passed away recently at the age of 96, before he could realise his vision.

Doctors and nurses are increasing in number, although we cannot say the same when it comes to their quality and cost of services. Even the witch-doctors, using shrubs and plants, have raised their rock bottom charges sky high.

Do the modern hospitals and clinics deliver adequate services? We shall try to examine this question in due course.



By Girma Feyissa


Published on March 10, 2013 [ Vol 13 ,No 671]


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