Senegal's traditional healers

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Jori Lewis reports that traditional medicine is big business in the West African nation of Senegal. Critics say regulation is needed, while others say traditional healers are their only hope.

KATY CLARK: In many parts of Africa, when people get sick, there's a good chance that they won't go to the doctor for a visit or the pharmacist for a prescription. They'll go to a traditional healer for some herbs or some prayers or a ceremony or two. They do it for lots of reasons: limited access to medical care, the prohibitive costs of Western medicines or because their spiritual beliefs tell them to. Jori Lewis reports from the West African nation Senegal where traditional medicine is big business.

JORI LEWIS: Rokhaya Pouye had been suffering from years. She couldn't eat. She couldn't walk. She couldn't sleep. When her family took her to the hospital, the doctors couldn't find anything wrong with her. So her family decided if it wasn't the body, it had to be the spirit ? or spirits, to be precise. Madame Pouye says she turned to traditional medicine. The spirits, she says, asked her to kill three oxen in a ten-day ceremony to protect herself from the sorcerers. She says she was healed by an ndeup ceremony. It's a ritual that involves prayer, animal sacrifice and dance. And now she helps out at local ndeup ceremonies, like this one in a suburb of Dakar. The women of this extended family whirl, jump and fling themselves around a courtyard. They move to the drums until they feel the spirits taking over their bodies. One woman falls to the ground, tears running down her face. Another picks up a drummer and carries him around. He doesn't miss a beat. It's beautiful to watch. But is this medicine? Mamadou Ngom oversees the traditional medicine sector for the World Health Organization in Dakar. His answer is an emphatic yes.

NGOM: Yes, that's traditional medicine. The problem that we have as scientists is that we are grounded in reason and scientific criteria. We say, ?What are they doing?? But it's something that they have done many times over many years, and they know they will get the same results.

LEWIS: Ngom says that in Africa, about 80 percent of people use or have used traditional medicine. That's a big umbrella term that encompasses everything from an ndeup ceremony to incantations to healing with herbs and powders. Many like Madame Pouye turn to traditional medicine after going to a medical doctor. But others go because it's cheaper, more convenient or it's all they know. Sometimes they regret it. Across the border in the Gambian capital of Banjul, I met the Saho family. They were gathered on the hospital bed of 1-year-old Ibrahima. When Ibramhima got sick with a bad fever, his father Ousmane took him to a marabout, a spiritual leader and healer. And then he went to another and another.

OUSMANE: Some were telling me his private parts got problems, that's why he is sick. Some were telling me he lacks water, you know, he don't have enough water. You know, they were giving me conflicting information about my child's sickness. But later on when I come with my senses based on the advice of my wife, I have to come to the hospital. Thank God, he's recovering.

LEWIS: Little Ibrahima had pneumonia. At the hospital they gave him antibiotics and attached him to an IV. When I met them, Ibrahima had been in the hospital for about 10 days, but was finally getting better. Charles Katy is the cultural director for the International Association for the Promotion of Traditional Medicine, known as PROMETRA. He says fakes and charlatans are a problem.

KATY: We have many charlatans here. They say marabout but when somebody says, ?I'm a marabout. I can do this and this. Come and see me. My house is there. This is my number. Call me and so on.? It's not because he's able to treat but he wants money.

LEWIS: In an attempt to address this problem, Prometra has established a clinic in the Senegalese town of Fatick, where the healers police each other; they have organized hundreds of them: priests, fortune tellers, bonesetters, and herbal specialists. Healers at the clinic meet once a month to discuss clinic business. Diene Ndiaye is the current chairman. Ndiaye harvests certain herbs and plants to help people with respiratory diseases, gastrointestinal problems and STD's. He says the wisest healers know their own limits, and that there is a role for both types of medicine.

NDIAYE: The medical doctor and traditional healer, it's like the right hand and the left hand. If they join, they can more effectively help people. Medical doctors are doing a very good job but sometimes they fail in treating diseases where traditional medicine works. At other times, it's the other way around. I think we have to work together.

LEWIS: The WHO says it wants to help African countries register and regulate traditional healers. The scientists can identify plants and herbs and their uses. What they can't do is regulate the spiritual aspects at the heart of so many traditional practices. But most people here would say even though those practices aren't science, they're still medicine. For The World, I'm Jori Lewis, in Fatick, Senegal.