Zimbabwe’s continuing economic crisis is making it difficult for most ordinary Zimbabweans to access formal health care, with many finding no option but to seek alternative services.
A traditional healer at Bulawayo’s Makokoba Market, listens attentively as a middle-aged man describes his ailment to him. The man (who cannot be named for reasons of patient confidentiality) reveals that he is suffering from a sexually transmitted infection. He is one of many Zimbabweans who are reverting to consulting traditional healers.
The Makokoba Market, in one of Bulawayo’s oldest high density suburbs of Makokoba, is home to informal craftspeople, traders, as well as traditional healers.
Dr. Rudo Gumbo, a physician at a government hospital who was speaking in her individual capacity, acknowledged that the unrelenting economic crisis is not only having a negative impact on the country’s health system, but is also affecting ordinary people as it is making it increasingly difficult for them to afford health care.
Dr. Gumbo says many locals are now being compelled to either pin their hopes on faith-healing in churches or consult traditional healers.
A traditional healer at the Makokoba Market, who only chose to be identified as Msipa, said some locals consult him and his colleagues for a wide range of ailments, which include diabetes, hypertension, cancer and sexually transmitted infections.
“These days it is difficult for us to get clients because many people are now finding refuge in the churches. You can get one customer in one day or may be lucky to get up to five of them … God is good and he is generous, so, I’m assured of getting at least one customer per day. People come to us complaining of various ailments like sexually transmitted infections, and we are able to help them.”
Another traditional healer, who only identified himself as Jamela, echoed Msipa’s sentiments, adding that a number of people who consult him and his colleagues do it in a rather clandestine manner, as they are ashamed of the stigma associated with seeking medical help from traditional healers.
“I’d say that most of the younger generations now see themselves as church people who have nothing to do with traditional healers. But when things get really tough and they fail to find help in church, they are sometimes told to go back to their roots and get help from us traditional healers. We have nothing against church people because they also help in their own way.
“There are some who make people pay and there are others who don’t ask for any money. So you will find that there are many who want to be secretive when they come to consult us because they are ashamed to be seen openly doing so. But there are older people who consult us openly because they know that we are rooted in our culture and we are able to assist in many cases.”
The 78 year-old Jamela disputes the notion that traditional medicine is steeped in mystery and also denies that the efficacy of traditional medicine is doubtful, as a result of not being properly packaged, with the dosages often lacking precise measurement.
The Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association is a body that was registered in the late 1990s with some of its objectives being to formalize the work of traditional healers and enable them to complement the formal health sector. In spite of such a move, traditional medicine remains looked down upon.
But another traditional healer, Mike Ncube, says black Zimbabweans should not be ashamed of traditional healers as they are a reflection of the people’s culture and identity.
She adds that traditional healers are experts in the field and some types of western medicine are derived from the herbs that the local healers use.
“You can find that in some instances when you go the hospital and you fail to be cured, some people who are honest can tell you that you can be assisted by traditional healers. We are appealing to people to remember their roots; they should believe that we as traditional healers are able to help them in some cases. For instance you could come to me suffering from cancer and then I give you some herbs. After a week I should be able to see some improvement. I should constantly monitor how you are doing so that I can change the medication if need be. We are able to help and I am asking people to remember who they are.”
Dr. Gumbo says both traditional and faith healing have risks as some unscrupulous individuals often lie to desperate people claiming to be able to cure diseases that they are known to be incurable.
Although this may be true, many hard-pressed Zimbabweans will continue to see the services of both traditional and faith healers as a viable alternative to the formal health system which is beyond their reach.