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Jun 22 / Ashley Joseph

Medical Anthropology

One of the focuses of our trip to Ghana was medical anthropology. We did not only want to have a rewarding volunteer experience, but also gain an appreciation and understanding of the rich Ghanaian culture, history, and medical practices. Anthropology is the study of people and includes an aspect of participant observation. It provides an understanding of human cultures, interactions, behaviours and history. A subset of this field is medical anthropology which, according to Baer et al. in Medical Anthropology and the World System, is the study of human health, disease and healthcare systems.

One of the reasons I love travelling is because I enjoy experiencing and learning about new cultures. Over the course of the trip, I learned a tremendous amount about the country of Ghana and its people. African culture in that region is rich in traditions. One of the areas I noticed this in was in their health care practices and use of medicine. Medical anthropology is holistic and examines a variety of aspects to gain a whole understanding of a people’s approach to medicine and healing.

At the Herbal Medicine Research Facility: A researcher describes the many herbal products they produce.

In Ghana, we had the opportunity to visit the Africa First Medicinal Farm and a research facility in Kumasi. These were very enlightening experiences and the most educationally beneficial aspects of the trip. At the medicinal farm, which spanned acres of property, we had the chance to learn about, see, and taste various plants that are medically beneficial for different ailments. At the government-run medical research facility in Kumasi, we had the chance to speak to a researcher about the process of validating herbal medicine and its rise in popularity as a legitimate treatment option. He took us throughout the facility and explained the processes of validating and approving herbal medicines. I was excited to learn about this rapidly growing field and its potential in the healthcare system.

At Africa First Medicinal Farm, herbalists show us various plants that have medicinal purposes

In Medical Anthropology and the World System, Baer describes health as a sense of wellbeing not just in the physical sense. Emotional and psychological health is just as vital to a person’s overall wellbeing. I noticed in Ghana that there is a prevalence of many preventable diseases and medical conditions. I was shocked to learn about so many people suffering from malnutrition, sexually transmitted diseases, and diseases stemming from lack of sanitation. All of these are preventable with adequate knowledge and being proactive. Baer discusses an idea of “Functional Health” in which the individual is in a state of optimal capacity to carry out productive work that benefits the society to which they belong. In Ghana, much of the poverty can be attributed to physical, emotional, and/or psychological conditions that inhibit people from working to improve their own situations as well as contributing to society as a whole.

Disease is as much a social issue as it is biological. Baer notes that many medical conditions arise from social problems like malnutrition and lack of sanitation. This is evident in impoverished regions of Ghana, as well as in poverty-stricken areas all over the world. This is why I felt that we were making a vital impact by teaching young children the importance of prevention of diseases and how to stay healthy. Diseases interact with social conditions. For example, substance abuse can lead to domestic violence which can lead to an increase in sexually transmitted diseases. Health education is vital in curbing the rise of these medical conditions.

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