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Media and Critical Reporting of Traditional Medicine Claims in Africa

Leo Igwe

Ethical Technology

June 26, 2015

African traditional medicine is widely perceived as a form of voodoo medicine, as a survival of some stone age pre-modern illiterate formation that still functions and fulfills medical purposes for Africans. This is, at least, how many anthropologists have viewed the subject. They have argued that African traditional medicine is unlike ‘western medicine’, and then go on to establish how witchcraft and magic is embedded in this ‘unique’ medical practice. African medicine men and women are portrayed as witch doctors - as if the traditional-medical profession is about treating and curing witchcraft.

Incidentally, claims by contemporary herbal or traditional medicine men and women in the region reinforce these stereotypes. Uncritical reporting of these claims by the media gives credence to misconceptions of medicinal notions in Africa.

Using the reported claims of a Nigerian filmed actor who later became a traditional healer, I argue for a more balanced and critical reporting of traditional medicine claims.

The Punch of April 20, 2012 has a report on one Chief Jimoh  from Ado Ekiti in Southern Nigeria. The article claims he was born into a family of traditional healers, and that his father was a traditional doctor and died at the age of 136. (It is not clear how Jimoh was able to know the father’s exact age given the state of record keeping then.)

Jimoh has moved from being a theatre practitioner to being a traditional healer. He explained that treating ‘witchcraft’ was central to the father’s traditional/ herbal medical practice. But he did not give details of how the father treated witchcraft. The medical practice entails ’‘assisting those seeking for fruits of the womb and those under the yoke of witchcraft and family curses…’‘. This profession brought Chief Jimoh to Lagos in 1946 but he abandoned it for other pursuits. Now he has returned to the profession.

Jimoh further explains how his medical practice works:

“The traditional medicine I do involves attending to those wishing to bear children and battling with witchcraft and family problems. I have Imams and Prophets who I also consult to ensure that anybody who comes to me has his or her problems solved. My clients come from many parts of Nigeria and overseas. I practise in Ado-Ekiti.’’. 

In another report on The Nation, September 7 2014, Jimoh claims to have a cure for Ebola. He said:

“Ebola has been around  for long. Yoruba calls it  Sonpona. So, the disease is not strange and it can be cured. In Mecca, there is  Musemuse spiritual water that pilgrims scoop and take to their respective countries. And whoever drinks it  will be well. The Western world is being deceitful to say that Africa doesn’t have potent traditional medicines that can cure illness. I can cure the dreaded Ebola if the Federal Government invites me. This disease ravaging humanity is  what we call small pox, Sonpona. In the past, we easily treated those affected in the bush. It also presents as measles in children while they are isolated or quarantined till date. I am ready to offer suggestions to assist if the FG calls me. There is cure for Ebola,” 

Apart from having the cure for Ebola, he claims to have supernatural powers and an antidote to ‘adultery!

“In my father’s time, there was nothing like  surgical operation. Today, little children are dying in the hospitals when herbs could have treated them. A long time ago, I climbed a bee hill and had advised some students to hold on to me or touch me to avoid being stung. Some yielded and others did not. Later, those that held had their hands on were not stung  by the bees!. Also on another day, a scorpion stung me. I tied the spot with a piece of cloth, made some incantations. Later, I went to the hospital and asked a nurse to give  me an injection needle. I injected myself on the punctured spot where dark poisoned blood oozed from. The hospital officials were astonished. Till date, if  someone  is afflicted with Magun, (don’t climb), I have the antidote. But if you are praying  for such a person and calling on Jesus, it will not work because God does not support adultery. So, there is need to go trad-medical to show that African powers are still there and very potent”.

A skeptical perspective should have been included in these reports to provide insights into the woo-woo nature of Jimoh’s trado-medical claims. This is clearly a case of an extraordinary medicinal claim that requires an extraordinary evidence or I should say  an ‘extraordinary reporting’. Many traditional medicine men and women like Jimoh exist and operate in different parts of Africa and seek to promote themselves and attract customers by making reckless and irresponsible cure claims. They go to the extent of claiming to cure ‘witchcraft’ ebola and all forms of ailments.

The reporters should have sought out the views of a medical scientist or a skeptic which would have given some balance to the story. It would have been enriching to know what Jimoh meant by witchcraft. How does he diagnose witchcraft? What medication does he use? How did he come about the medication? How did he come about his knowledge of disease and medicine? What has traditional medicine got to do with family problems? What medicine does he administer to solve or ‘cure’ family problems or remove family curses? What is the cure of Ebola? Why does he need an invitation from the Federal Government to make the cure available?

Such insights are important if media reports on traditional medicine in Africa are to be taken seriously by the global community

I mean, do African medicine men and women really want the scientific community to reckon with traditional medicine in contemporary world? Then they need to rethink the idea of claiming to cure witchcraft. They should stop presenting themselves as charlatans. African medicine men and women need to stop making these reckless and irresponsible cure claims. The reporters should bring balance and objectivity to their ‘medical’ reporting.

Witchcraft is superstition. Witchcraft is not a disease and has no basis in medical science. But still many traditional medicine men and women openly advertise witchcraft as one of the ‘diseases’ they cure, and local media uncritically promote witchcraft cure-claims. There have been vigorous campaigns in many African countries for the recognition of African Traditional Medicine.This campaign will not be considered credible till African traditional-medical cure claims are critically reported, and yes, till African traditional medicine is dissociated from witchcraft and magic.

Leo Igwe, as a member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, has bravely worked for human rights in West Africa. He is presently enrolled in a three year research programme on “Witchcraft accusations in Africa” at the University of Bayreuth, in Germany.


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