With Zimbabwe's health sector in ruins, witchdoctors are busy

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THE COLLAPSING health sector in Zimbabwe, once among the best in Africa, is forcing thousands of the sick and elderly to seek out traditional healers or "witchdoctors" for treatment, human rights groups say.

Zimbabwe's National Medical Association says 40 per cent of doctors in Harare, the capital, have left the country, and many medical graduates are heading abroad to better-paid jobs and better conditions. There are said to be fewer than 900 doctors serving a population of 11.5 million.

"Healers", usually with no formal training, have become an option of last resort for many sufferers. The cures are concocted from roots, barks, leaves, animal parts and, occasionally, human organs. Some witchdoctors also claim an ability to diagnose illness through divine powers.

The boom in business for Julius Churi, a traditional healer near Harare, is typical. Mr Churi performs diagnoses using four animal bones, throwing them the air then analysing the pattern in which they fall.

His remedies are drawn from traditional juices drawn from boiled roots, grass and leaves. Mr Churi says, his increasing number of clients have a revived faith in the supernatural. "People are discovering that traditional medicines work more effectively than modern medicines," he says.

"Our methods are more effective because they are informed by supernatural powers. I am unlike these doctors who went to school to learn to treat patients. I communicate directly with the Gods and spirits and they are the ultimate owners of humanity". Martin Mutero, a Harare resident who has resorted to healers, is sceptical. But he said that for many Zimbabweans there was little alternative to taking a gamble on unqualified advice.

"What can you take when there are no drugs in state hospitals, no doctors to give any advice, no equipment to even examine your blood pressure and basically nothing to do anything for you when you enter state hospitals and clinics? You have to try whatever is at your disposal, including traditional healing."

President Robert Mugabe's government has blocked the release of United Nations health surveys. Until then, Mr Mutero will reluctantly take the only help on offer.