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Honeyguide Newsletters: Summer 2003

About Africa

Exploring traditional medicine and healing with a local shaman.

The Honeyguide: Summer 2003
Doctor's Orders!

In much of East Africa, where there exists a great fear and skepticism about western medicine, people rely heavily on 'waganga', or traditional healers. Some areas are simply too remote for patients to access modern medicine. Thus, traditional healers are the only option. For the unfamiliar, traditional medicine may conjure images of "witch doctors" and barbaric ceremonies that hold little medical merit. Yet, upon closer inspection, it becomes apparent that traditional medicine is often just as valid as its modern counterpart.

Another Land's newest cultural program is with the Barabaig, a secretive nomadic tribe who are respected and feared for their ability to control the rain. The Barabaig are one of the few tribes that have chosen not to adapt their traditional culture to 'mainstream' Tanzanian society. An important figure in every Barabaig village is the Traditional Healer.

On a recent visit to the village, we met with Gidasheed, a Barabaig healer, and spoke with him about his profession. He showed us special plants that are smoked to cure tuberculosis, roots that when chewed stimulate the appetite, and a special enema funnel. We asked Gidasheed how he acquired the knowledge of a healer. He said, simply: "I learned from my father". Where, then, did his father learn? "From his father, of course", Gidasheed replied. We continued this line of questioning, hoping for the 'divine origin of medicine' story. After a long sigh and understanding grin, he explained that many hundreds (perhaps thousands) of years ago, the first Barabaig peoples were in need of medicine to help their sick children, so they tried many different remedies until they found the ones that worked. These were passed on to the following generations. This method of trial-and-error seemed so logical and simple - so scientific.

Surprisingly, Gidasheed does not receive any payment unless the remedy he has prescribed is successful. Payment is made once the patient has recovered from his ailment. Occasionally a cured patient refuses to pay. If the person is too poor to pay for the treatment, his debt is forgiven. If the person has the money to pay but simply refuses, Gidasheed will threaten to create a remedy of a different sort - one that can be deadly. This system ensures that those who need medical treatment will get it, and those who abuse the system are punished.

But there are cases when the Barabaig will take their sick to a western doctor. Recently, one of the children of a very powerful elder fell ill. Gidasheed was unable to cure him. His condition worsened and he was taken to the nearest hospital - several hours away. X-rays, labwork and the expertise of the doctor were not enough to definitively diagnose the child. He was sent home without treatment, as no cause could be found for his illness. In this case, he was failed by both the traditional and the modern. Not necessarily a fault of either method, but proof that there is no sole victor in this debate.

About The Honeyguide

The Honeyguide - a monthly email newsletter - is named after the Greater Honey Guide, a bird that has developed the remarkable habit of leading tribespeople to wild bees' nests, with the promise of honeycomb and grubs once the humans have opened the nest and taken the honey. The complementary relationship shared by bird and human represents the newsletter's goal - to periodically lead readers to new and timely bits of information about East African wildlife, culture, and travel.

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