Healers reluctant to share secrets with medical giants

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The Independent Online
Attempts to pull 300,000 sangomas (traditional healers) into South Africa's hard-pressed health system are going nowhere. Fear that drug companies will steal their potions has the healers dragging their heels. Mary Braid reports.

The Pope beams down on Dr Sarah Mashele's waiting room, sharing wall space with a Native American prophecy about human greed, a warning that smoking causes cancer and a painting of a sangoma chatting to a water serpent.

The bizarre fusion of Catholicism and traditional African beliefs, modern technology and magic, continues in Dr Mashele's consulting room in a Johannesburg tower block otherwise filled with dentists, GPs and chiropodists.

The fax jostles for space with Jesus, leather-bound Bibles and a pile of animal bones which Dr Mashele throws to diagnose complaints. If the bones prove useless the sick close their eyes and select a scripture printed on a fortune cookie-like slip from hundreds filed in a plastic box.

Dr Mashele, the grandchild of a Christian bishop and descendent of a long line of African healers, is at ease amidst this hotchpotch. Illness she explains can be caused by stress, diet or germs. But witchcraft she adds, with a touch of defiance, can also cause sickness. Whatever the cause the answer lies across the corridor in a dark and hallowed room where she grinds herbs and plants for muti (medicine).

Despite the efforts of the old apartheid regime, which dismissed traditional healing as primitive nonsense, some 300,000 traditional healers are estimated to be practising in South Africa today.

More than 80 per cent of the population use them instead of, or as well as, Western-trained doctors. Healers are consulted 90-100 million times a year; every visit costs 100R (pounds 12) in a R10bn industry. The new government has taken a more enlightened approach to traditional African medicine than its Boer predecessor. Struggling to expand health care to the black majority the government realises the benefits of recruiting this large workforce into primary health care. It also wants to subject healers' treatments to scientific tests. For despite the "mumbo jumbo" there is little doubt that some muti works.

But a year after the Medicines Control Council set up a joint group of Western practitioners and African healers to bring the systems together, precious little progress has been made. At the heart of the delay are concerns about intellectual property rights. Healers fear research institutions and drug companies are poised to steal their knowledge, mass produce their remedies and rake in the bucks.

Solomon Mahlaba, managing director of the African National Healers' Association, is a member of the MCC Western-African medicine group. He is also participating in a related Medical Research Council project at the University of Cape Town in which traditional potions are already being scientifically tested to discover how they work and to produce a register of safe and approved medicines.

But he has his concerns. "This collaboration between Western doctors and traditional healers is unequal. We work with the university, but then everything produced belongs to it. At the moment it is one-way traffic leading straight to the pharmaceutical companies," he said.

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