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)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: E-commerce Partnerships Manager

£50000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a newly-created partne...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Co-Ordinator - FF&E

£35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior FF&E Project Co-ordinator is re...

Recruitment Genius: Part Time Carer / Support Worker plus Bank Support

£10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A delightful, 11 year old boy who lives in t...

Recruitment Genius: Office Furniture Installer / Driver

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Office Furniture Installer /...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor