African healing - traditional medicine
Essence, March, 1992 by Kirk A. Johnson

Picture this: More than 100 years ago in what isn ow Uganda, a pregnant woman lies strapped to a bed. The doctor scrubs her patient's abdomen with banana wine, and holding a knife aloft in her steady hands, she whispers an incantation. Suddenly, with a piercing cry that is echoed by villagers gathered outside the hut, the doctor makes the incision. Her assistants work quickly, touching a red-hot iron here and there to stop the bleeding. In a moment, the woman's child is born. Closing the incision with polished iron pins, the doctor applies an infection-fighting paste made from roots and bandages the wound with a warm banana leaf. The mother, having endured the operation without a whimper, is healed in less than two weeks.

This cesarean operation, which was performed in 1879, may seem primitive. But in the nineteenth century, it was the most advanced in the world. At a time when European women typically died of infection and hemorrhage soon after a C-section, African surgeons were masters of abdominal deliveries.

With its witch doctors and potions. African medicine is often laughed off as voodoo. But historians believe that 6,000 years ago Egyptians were the originators of medicine and masters of what we now call holistic healing. "Most of what African-Americans know about African medicine has to do with putting spells on folks," says Llaila Afrika, a naturopathic doctor and author of African Holistic Health (Sea Island Information Group, Silver Spring, Maryland, 1989). "But there's great scientific validation behind many of the remedies."

Many of us wonder how anyone can treat illness without the modern techniques that seem indispensable to the practice of medicine. "Perhaps it would be more appropriate to ask why Western physicians are unable to treat so many illnesses adequately when they are indeed privy to this information," suggests Dr. Robert A. Montgomery, who spent a year studying traditional medicine in five African nations as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow.

Unlike Western medicine, which looks at illness in terms of isolated symptoms, traditional African healing embraces a worldview of interconnectedness. Africans feel intimately tied to their families, neighbors, coworkers and ancestors in a vast seamless continuum. And traditional African healers view illness as a sign that the harmony in the continuum is awry. Their aim is to work with patients to restore harmony and to heal the root cause of the sickness. The cure might involve rituals, prayer or herbal remedies.

Even in our own high-tech culture, this age-old healing tradition holds lessons for us. Many African-Americans have learned to incorporate these lessons--sometimes in small, subtle ways--into their modern lives to help keep their emotional, physical and spiritual selves harmonious and healthy. Below are some examples you, too, can take to heart.

Don't be afraid to combine holistic healing methods with conventional medical treatments. No mode of medicine--including traditional medicine--works for all ailments. But every healing method, from massage to surgery, has its benefits. "For Africans there seems to be no contradiction in attending a Christian church service while a sacrifice to the ancestors is waiting at home," writes University of Florida anthropology professor Brian M. du Toit. The ideal is finding whatever works with the fewest side effects.

Following the African model, Judy Richardson added holistic therapy to the conventional treatment she was undergoing for chronic back pain. A series producer for the award-winning civil-rights documentary Eyes on the Prize II, Richardson had been diagnosed with sciatica, but she says prescription painkillers and bed rest brought her no relief: "The painkillers zonked me out and didn't prevent the pain from returning."

Eventually she consulted a third-generation acupuncturist in Los Angeles. The relief was immediate. After one session, Richardson was free of pain for the first time in months. Years later, when the film producer noticed tension-induced numbness in her arms, she visited a chiropractor, who administered hot-pad treatments and realigned her spine. After four treatments, the discomfort disappeared.

Equally important, Richardson learned to keep her back strong and healthy with swimming sessions at the local YWCA and daily stomach exercises. Today she uses a holistic approach to ward off the tension that is her nemesis: "I walk. I listen to Aretha. I dance to Sly and the Family Stone." Richardson also saves the newspaper for a special ritual at the end of each day: reading the comics. "Laughter is a wonderful tension reliever," she explains with a smile.

Recognize the social and spiritual roots of illness. Only recently have Western scientists begun to acknowledge the impact of the mind on physical health. To be healthy, we must seek wholeness and peace within ourselves, in our relationships with other people and with the environment.

Iyanla Vanzant, a Yoruba priestess and scholar of traditional African medicine, believes that one way to create harmony is to follow nature's cues. "When the sun sets in Africa," she observes, "people go to bed. You don't find a whole lot of Africans working at night."

Similarly, African-Americans need to embrace a holistic view of health. "If you eat right, you have to sleep right. If you eat and sleep right, you have to talk right. If you eat, sleep and talk right, you have to think right," says Vanzant.

Mark the passage of important life events with rituals. Births, deaths and weddings are celebrated by Africans and African-Americans alike. But Africans also use rituals to mark the passage into adulthood and to ensure safety and success when moving into a new home, returning from a trip or changing jobs. Rituals are performed for children and for women during childbirth to maintain the spiritual harmony that protests loved ones from harm.

In Africa, such rituals might involve drinking tonics and bloodletting. A less drastic alternative for African-Americans might be a simple sacrifice--perhaps foregoing television or skipping snacks for a week--or communing through meditation with a favorite aunt or grandparent.

Rituals can also be elaborate. Last year in New York City, six mothers celebrated their daughters' coming of age with a festive outdoor ceremony marked by African dance, libations to ancestors and African foods. The ceremony was the culmination of a year and a half of monthly mother-daughter "seminars" on topics ranging from grooming and self-esteem to careers and sex.

Cheryl Hudson, a working mother of two and owner of Just Us Books in East Orange, New Jersey, says the process transformed the mothers and daughters alike. "The girls went from being reluctant to talk about Africa to taking great pride in their heritage. The mothers gained the satisfaction of serving as elders for a new generation, just as their elders were there for them."

Remember the value of community. When nineteenth-century African surgeons performed cesareans, their cries at the moment of the incision were taken up by relatives and neighbors. This operation wasn't just an isolated transaction between a woman and her doctor. The procedure was an opportunity for the community to show its support for the woman and its confidence in the healer.

We, too, can accomplish miracles with collective support. Consider the quiet miracles under way at SisterLove Women's AIDS Project. This Atlanta-based nonprofit group helps women, particularly women of color, organize groups of HIV-infected women who, having come together as isolated individuals, soon feel a new collective strength.

"When women walk one by one into a health clinic, they all get handed the same information," explains Dazon A. Dizon, executive director of SisterLove. "But when those same women sit down in a group, compare their experiences and share information, they ultimately find a power they never realized they had. It's a power that helps them stave off the isolation and stigma that come with HIV infection and gives them courage to fight for their share of HIV services, which are typically oriented toward males."

Don't let stress control your life. Western culture applauds individual ambition and achievement. But traditional African cultures, such as the Zulu tribe, often warn against too much initiative and personal wealth.

Here we know all too well the toll that working and worrying take on the body. The trick is finding tranquility in a jostling, jolting environment. "You have to become creative and make the environment work for you," advises Queen Afua, author of Heal Thyself for Health and Longevity (Heal Thyself Center, 1991) and founding director of Brooklyn's Heal Thyself Center. Afua and her partner lead a three-hour ritual called the New York City Soul Seat. Each month 25 to 30 African-Americans meet at a local bathhouse to chant, pray, sing, do yoga, drink herbal preparations--and, of course, sweat. "People find that our version of the African cleansing ritual helps them relax and find the spirit within," Afua explains. "The more they practice it, the more they open up to the warmth and generosity of our own community."

Kirk A. Johnson is the editor of the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, published by Meharry Medical College.

COPYRIGHT 1992 Essence Communications, Inc.