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Traditional healers fight Aids: Millions of lives in Africa depend on the success of a campaign to teach preventative measures

SLAMMING her fist into the palm of her hand, Mercy Manci shouted at the class: 'Only when it is erect.' For a moment her pupils sat in stunned silence, but then could not control their laughter. The source of mirth was the stiff tube-like piece of rubber that Ms Manci, coolly straightfaced, was holding in her hand, sometimes positioned so it stuck out from her waist. It was a large dildo.

What made matters more hilarious was that Ms Manci's 60- year-old mother, Mary, was passing dildos round the room and insisting that everyone try to cover them with clear rubber balloons. Grown men and women wearing elaborate head- dresses of feathers and beads, some with white chalk on their legs to indicate apprenticeship, were bent over double in guffaws as they tried to fit the condoms.

Nothing could have been more serious, however. Millions of lives depend on the success of Africa's traditional healers learning their lessons about Aids prevention, such as using only new razor blades for incisions and urging people to use condoms. The reach of the traditional healers is far wider than practitioners of Western medicine, especially in the rural areas. The healers, known in South Africa as sangomas, inyangas or makhozis, claim to be patronised by 85 per cent of the black population. The percentage is probably higher in the rest of Africa.

This was the first such course for traditional healers held at the Holy Cross Hospital, a former Anglican institution in Transkei, one of the black 'homelands' created under the now discarded 'grand apartheid' scheme of South Africa's white government. For two days last month, 32 traditional healers, some of whom arrived on horseback and on foot, learnt how to prevent the spread of Aids.

It was part of a campaign launched by the Traditional Doctors' Aids Project and a non- governmental organisation, Aidscom. The idea is to train 30 healers, each of whom will train another 30, who will train 30 more, reaching in one year 27,000 traditional healers.

At first, the traditional healers did not know how the Holy Cross medical doctors would receive them, given the longstanding rivalry between the two medical worlds. Often physicians regard the healers as 'witchdoctors' while the traditional doctors view them as practising 'white man's medicine'.

'It is important to train the traditional healers because the black population comes to us,' said Ms Manci, 38, herself a traditional healer. 'They believe in the traditional way of healing, and in us because we still have the culture.'

Much of the problem is information. A recent study reported that three-quarters of South African youths, or 8 million people, believed they face no personal risk from Aids; 3 per cent had never heard of it.

Such ignorance of the threat is reflected in statistics presented by traditional healers. Some said half of their patients seek remedies for sexually transmitted diseases. Transkei has been particularly hard hit because it is a great source of migrant labour. Social mores are not what they used to be, said Ms Manci, who describes the rapid spread of Aids among South African blacks as a reflection of sexual promiscuity. 'Since our people abandoned the culture, there is nothing we can do but use the condom.'

Because they are deeply ingrained in African culture, traditional doctors are viewed by many experts as a key to broaching the previously taboo issue of sex. They could also play a big role in helping communities to adjust to the presence of Aids victims in their midst and not to ostracise them.

During Ms Manci's lecture, one sangoma, a young man, was not ready to accept that Aids was a disease that could be prevented by abstinence or a condom. He argued that Aids, like venereal disease, was not an illness but the result of sleeping with evil spirits, known as tokoloshe.

It took Ms Manci 15 minutes to convince the sangoma that whatever the origin of Aids, certain preventative measures could reduce its incidence. She won over the audience by offering a choice: people could either abstain from sex until marriage and then stick with that one person, or they could use condoms. It was at that point that the traditional healers enthusiastically tried to deploy the condoms.

(Photograph omitted)