Traditional Medicine in Africa—Compatible With Christianity?
For millions of Africans, traditional healers are their only contact with medicine of any kind. Particularly is this true in rural areas where hospitals are few and doctors are rare. Traditional medicine, however, usually has strong roots in superstition and spiritualism. What should a Christian do under these circumstances?
“‘THIS “agbo” will in all probability kill him off and put an end to all his misery and ours.’ And so, on the assumption that the new remedy was going to result in good riddance of me, the concoction was poured down my throat.”
This was written by a medical doctor in a Lagos, Nigeria, Sunday Times article entitled “Don’t Despise the Traditional Healer.” He was describing how his parents had given up hope of his recovery from a critical illness when he was only one year old. The medicine, sent to them by a traditional healer, was credited with saving his life.
Many Africans who favor traditional medicine tell of surprising cures that have been effected in cases where hospital treatment had failed. Others condemn it as unhygienic, superstitious quackery. On the middle ground are those who call for scientific research into the local herbal remedies and for greater recognition and acceptance of traditional healers. Many would like to see a blending of traditional and modern medicine, citing the cooperation between practitioners of both groups in China and India.
Even if you do not live in Africa, you may be interested in knowing if African folk medicine is really effective and beneficial. What about the ritual element so common among Africans? Is the supernatural an essential ingredient or a harmful feature that should be rejected? What should be the Christian’s position toward such traditional African medicine?
Vegetation, of course, is our main source of food and is essential to our existence. There are also plants that yield drugs or poisons that have destroyed countless numbers of people who have misused them. But did you know that some of these same drugs are used in modern medicines? Scientists discovered some of these drugs by investigating plants that were being used in folk medicine or in the concoctions of medicine men. They collected samples, analyzed them chemically, and tested their effects on the body and on microorganisms that cause disease. The result has been the production of some important medical drugs, such as quinine, reserpine, digitalis, and codeine.
People of ancient times discovered many herbal remedies accidentally, by trial and error, or by observing what happened to animals when they ate certain plants. Often those who made such discoveries and who became healers kept the art in their families. The knowledge of herbs thus came to be passed on from father to son or to other persons selected as apprentices. Most traditional healers still tend to be very secretive, often very reluctant to reveal from which plants they make their medicines. But more is involved in African traditional medicines than just herbal remedies.
The Strong Influence of Spiritism
Much of African traditional healing has been closely associated with the supernatural. Many believe that plants possess feelings, powers of communication, and extrasensory perception. Some healers claim to understand the language of plants and to be able to communicate with them. Others do not see the communication as coming from the plants, for they claim that unseen spirits have directed them to herbs that have healing properties.
Spiritism has thus played a prominent role in traditional medicine in Africa. Many Nigerians, for instance, believe that diseases and deaths are caused either by offended gods (or ancestral spirits) or by enemies who employ witchcraft. So sacrifices of appeasement are made, and spiritistic rituals and methods are employed.
Asuquo, a Nigerian healer, is one who strongly believed this. He says: “I learned herbal medicine from my father and used to sacrifice to the gods and to the spirits of our forefathers in preparing my concoctions. I believed that they produced the cures and that failure to sacrifice to them would bring sickness and death.”
In actuality, it often works the other way around. Such beliefs have subjected millions of people to superstitious fears and enslavement to unseen spirit forces. Many have suffered spiritistic obsession and harassment. This alone is strong reason to reject any cure that includes sacrifices or other spiritistic rituals. And spirits that would obsess and harass people or deceive them into thinking that their ancestors are still alive or that plants can communicate are obviously deceptive and evil. The Bible warns: “The things which the nations sacrifice they sacrifice to demons, and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers with the demons.”—1 Corinthians 10:20.
The demons, disobedient angels condemned by God to future destruction, are bent on diverting people from worshiping the true God, Jehovah. (2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6) They pretend in some cases that they themselves are benevolent gods. (2 Corinthians 11:14) Carrying their deception further, they impersonate the dead and lead people to think that their ancestors are still alive in a spirit world. However, the Bible clearly says: “The dead . . . are conscious of nothing at all, . . . for there is no work nor devising nor knowledge nor wisdom in Sheol, the place to which you are going.”—Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10.
So it would be wrong for worshipers of the true God to accept from herbalists any cures that involve spiritistic practices. Likewise, herbalists who desire to render acceptable worship to God must discontinue every form of spiritistic practice. Truly, those who resort to spiritism forfeit Jehovah’s favor and protection and have no place in the Christian congregation. (Galatians 5:19-21; Revelation 21:8) There are many who have rejected spiritism, and they have found that some herbal cures can be quite effective without the spiritistic practices.
The Change to Christianity
Speaking of his personal experiences, Erhabor, an officially recognized physician who operates an herbal hospital, says: “Formerly I believed that sacrifices had to be included with the medicine in order to combat the spirit behind the disease. But after I studied the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses and became a Christian, I discarded these practices and now conform to Bible principles. I have found that the healing properties are in the plants themselves.”
Similarly, Asuquo says: “Things I learned about Jehovah brought new meaning to my life. My fear about ancestors was removed, and I got to know the true God. I also got to see that sacrifices were not necessary and that it is the juice of barks and leaves that heals people. Many people now come to me for treatment because I do not exploit their superstitions by asking for sacrifices. My treatment does not cost them as much as when they go to the juju healers.”
Because Okon, who also practices herbal medicine, does not use incantations or sacrifices in his practice, he is accused by other herbalists of “spoiling their practice.” “Some of my patients,” he says, “came as spies to prove that I still use sacrifices secretly. After being successfully treated for two weeks, they admitted that I do not use any form of juju. They also benefited from the Scriptural discussions I had with them. I was surprised to see four former patients at the ‘Divine Love’ Convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in December 1980. They embraced me and said: ‘We came to you for physical healing. You also gave us spiritual healing.’”
Christians like these have had to resist those who desire that they return to spiritistic practices. They know that if they combined their healing methods with any form of spiritism, they would no longer be fit to remain in the Christian congregation. So they do not offer sacrifices or use incantations. They do not make lying claims that they can cure every kind of illness, nor do they try to give the impression of having special powers. They avoid even the appearance of spiritism.
True Healing From God
In many developing nations, the majority of the inhabitants depend on the treatment given by traditional healers, in whom most have great confidence. Besides, hospitals and medical doctors are too few to meet the demands for treatment. Hence, most people in these lands likely will continue to consult healers, many of whom use spiritistic methods. But what will you do?
“The truth,” said Jesus, “will set you free.” (John 8:32) Knowing that the Bible condemns such practices, the Christian would refuse to become disloyal to God by consulting oracles or by seeking from an herbalist a cure involving divination. (Deuteronomy 18:10-13; compare Numbers 23:21, 23.) And if ill, neither would it be wise for a Christian to assume that the problems stem from a spiritistic spell. One need not have fear of being made ill by witchcraft when remaining firmly on God’s side by rejecting anything connected with spiritism. If, because of the imperfection that all of us have, illness is experienced, then a personal decision must be made concerning types of treatment.a
The ransom sacrifice offered by Jesus is the only means of deliverance from sin and the resultant sickness and death. (John 3:16; Acts 4:12) It alone opens the way for faithful persons to gain everlasting life on a paradise earth where “no resident will say: ‘I am sick.’”—Isaiah 33:24.
Until that happy day, the almighty God assures us that he will protect those who trust him. So all Christians need to rely on Jehovah, keeping close to him in prayer and supplication. This will result in a healthier life now, and it will ensure our receiving perfect life in the promised Paradise earth.—2 Peter 3:10-14; 1 John 2:17.