Traditional African medicine

Traditional African medicine
Traditional African medicine

Traditional African medicine is a holistic discipline involving extensive use of indigenous herbalism combined with aspects of African spirituality.

Despite numerous attempts at government interference, this ancient system of healing continues to thrive in Africa and practitioners can be found in many other parts of the world.

Under colonial rule, many nations considered traditional diviner-healers to be practitioners of witchcraft and outlawed them for that reason. In some areas of colonial Africa, attempts were also made to control the sale of traditional herbal medicines. After Mozambique obtained independence in 1975, diviner-healers were sent to reeducation camps.

Opposition to traditional medicine has been particularly vehement during times of conflict, when people have been more likely to call on the supernatural realm. More recently, interest has been expressed in integrating traditional African medicine with the continent’s national health care systems.

In Kwa-Mhlanga, South Africa, a 48-bed hospital combines traditional African medicine with homeopathy, iridology, and other Western healing methods, as well as traditional Asian medicine. Founded by a traditional African healer, the hospital is said to be the first of its kind in the country.


Practitioners of traditional African medicine claim to be able to cure a wide range of conditions, including cancers, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), psychiatric disorders, high blood pressure, cholera, infertility, and most venereal diseases.

Other applications include epilepsy, asthma, eczema, hayfever, anxiety, depression, benign prostatic hypertrophy, urinary tract infections, gout, and healing of wounds and burns.


Traditional African medicine involves diviners, midwives, and herbalists. Diviners are responsible for determining the cause of illness, which in some causes are believed to stem from ancestral spirits and other influences. Traditional midwives make extensive use of indigenous plants to aid childbirth.

Herbalists are so popular in Africa that an herb trading market in Durban is said to attract between 700,000 and 900,000 traders a year from South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. Smaller herb markets exist in virtually every community.

There are strong spiritual aspects to traditional African medicine, with a widespread belief among practitioners that psychospiritual aspects must be addressed before medical aspects.

Among traditional healers, the ability to diagnose an illness is considered a gift from both God and the practitioner’s ancestors. A major emphasis is placed on determining the root cause underlying any sickness or bad luck. Illness is said to stem from a lack of balance between the patient and his or her social environment.

It is this imbalance that determines the choice of the healing plant, which is valued as much for its symbolic and spiritual significance as for its medicinal effect. For example, the colors white, black, and red are considered especially symbolic or magical.

Seeds, leaves, and twigs bearing these colors are deemed to possess special properties. Diviners may use plants not only for healing purposes but also to control weather and events. In addition to plants, traditional African healers may employ charms, incantations, and casting of spells.

One traditional African medicinal cure that has developed a wide following outside the continent is pygeum (Prunus africana), which has been sold in Europe since the 1970s as a treatment for mild-to-moderate benign prostatic hyperplasia. Each year, 2,000 metric tons of pygeum bark are harvested in Cameroon and an other 600 tons are harvested in Madagascar.

In Africa, the bark is made into a tea. Elsewhere in the world, it is sold in powders, tinctures, and pills, often combined with other herbs believed to help with prostate problems. Users report greater ease of urination, with reduced inflammation and cholesterol deposits.

A comparison between numbers of traditional healers and medical doctors demonstrates the importance of this healing modality in Africa. In the Venda area of South Africa, there is one traditional practitioner for every 700–1,200 people, compared to one physician for every 17,400 people. Swaziland has one traditional healer for every 110 people. Benin City, Nigeria has the same ratio. Urban Kenya has one traditional healer per 833 population.


All cases of serious illness need to be examined by a medical doctor. Even though many prostate conditions are not serious, patients thinking of using pygeum should first undergo a medical examination to rule out more serious problems.

Concern has been expressed that increased demand for wild plants used in traditional African medicine is endangering local plant populations. For example, the Washington-based group Future Harvest says that a $220 million annual market for Prunus africana as a prostate remedy could lead to extinction of the slow-maturing evergreen tree in the African wilds.

Some Christian church officials express opposition to elements of witchcraft used by some African healers.

Side effects

Serious side effects, even death, can result from incorrect identification of healing plants. For example, species of the aloe plant are extensively used in traditional African medicine, but some forms, such as Aloe globuligemma, are toxic and can result in death if misidentified.

Convulsions and fatalities have been linked to the use of African herb concoctions known as imbiza, used for male erectile problems. Suppliers insist the problems occur only when too much of the concoction is consumed.

Research and general acceptance

Although many of the principles and methods of traditional African medicine are quite foreign to orthodox medical thinking, there is nonetheless considerable interest in exploiting Africa’s ethnobotanical knowledge for drug-development purposes.

For example, American researchers have expressed interest in using seed extracts from Garcinia kola, a common African tree used by traditional healers, to treat Ebola and Marburg disease.