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Jun 22 / Ashley Joseph

African Religion and Healing

In Ghana, the healthcare practices and healing are quite different than what is experienced in the west. Especially in rural areas, there is a great emphasis on traditional methods of healing. The use of herbal medicine and the importance of Shamans as medicine men are examples. While in Ghana, we had the opportunity to visit the Africa First Medicinal Farm and a research facility in Kumasi. These excursions gave me valuable insight into alternative methods of healing and the healthcare aspect of Ghanaian culture.

In Medical Anthropology and the World System, Baer notes that all medical systems focus on alleviating disease and promoting health. In industrial societies, such as in North America, physicians tend to practice medicine without the influence of religion. The interaction of physician and patient is segregated and private. In Ghana, there are two different approaches to medicine and sometimes they both are consulted. In the larger cities, there tends to be a push towards western practices of medicine: large hospitals and western medications. In the rural areas, herbal medicine and religion play a large part in the healing process. Most Africans are proactive with health. Bear notes that tribal societies most often emphasize prevention rather than reaction to a disease. Though this medical system may be foreign to us, it does work to alleviate disease and promote the health of the Ghanaian people it serves. In Africa, many people think that religion and healing often work together to heal.

An example of the intermingling of religion and healing in African culture is with the Gorvodu. Vodu is a West African religious culture marked by spirit possession and trance. The According to Judy Rosenthal in Possession, Ecstasy, and Law in Ewe Voodoo, Gorvodu is a specific Vodu order found in Ghana that is fuelled by memories of slavery where the people believe in spirit possession. Out of this, arise law and a moral code. The Gorvodu strongly believe in the overlap of medicine and religion. They uphold the idea that African life is circular and that all aspects of it are embedded with each other. The medicine man plays a huge part not only in healing, but also in marriage, therapy, and law. Rosenthal herself had an experience with Gorvodu healing. She gives credit for the treatment of her daughter’s sickle-cell anemia to a Gorvodu member, whom she believes treated her daughter’s disease with greater efficacy than western medicine is capable of. She was treated with an indigenous leaf with strong medicinal power.

At the Africa First Medicinal Farm, we had the opportunity to observe many different plants and hear about their medicinal purposes. Many Africans strongly believe in their healing powers.  I had a horrible cough that would not go away, and one of the herbalists suggested that I try a root plant. I agreed, and started chewing. It had a very bitter taste but it did alleviate some of the irritation in my throat. I was shocked that a plant could have such potent healing powers! I had never tried herbal medicine in the past, but I’m glad to have experienced it because it opened my eyes to the many benefits of alternative methods of healing that Africans have known about for years.

Treating my cough with a root plant - it worked!


Herbalists at the Medicinal Farm show us a healing plant

In Choosing Civility, Forni notes that being inclusive can give one a sense of belonging. It is this idea of inclusivity that the Africans value, which is very evident in their practice of medicine. Religion and healing are not separated. The idea of therapeutic pluralism has strong meaning in African culture. It is the idea that healing is not the result of one action, but many actions and people working together.

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