Traditional African Medicine and its Role in Healing in a Modern World

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), it has been estimated that “about 80% of the population in developing countries depend s on traditional medicine for their Primary Health Care (PHC) needs.” What is presently known as ‘conventional medicine’ has its origins in the West.

Though this is arguably the most prominent form of medicine today, it is not accessible to, or the first choice for, everyone. Therefore, many still rely on traditional medicine even today. Some forms of traditional medicine include: traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine (which has origins in ancient Indian society), and traditional African medicine. It is the last of these examples that this article will examine.

The Prevalence of Traditional African Medicine

In the continent of Africa, traditional (or ancestral) African medicine seems to be much more prevalent compared to conventional, Western medicine. In West Africa, for instance, it has been estimated that between 70-80% of the population rely on traditional medicine. Such figures, however, are not unique to that part of Africa alone, but may even be applied to the whole continent. In the countries of the WHO – African Region, it has been claimed that “60-80% of people rely on African traditional medicine for their primary health care.”

A Holistic Approach

One major difference between conventional, Western medicine and traditional African medicine, is the way of viewing illnesses and their treatments. Unlike its Western counter-part, traditional African medicine is said to take a holistic approach, which is based on the premise of interconnectedness, and often includes indigenous herbalism in its treatment..


According to traditional African belief, human beings are made up of various aspects – physical, spiritual, moral, and social. When these parts function together harmoniously, a person will be in good health. On the other hand, if any of these features are out of balance, a person will become physically, or even spiritually, ill. Thus, illness is not viewed as just a physical disorder, but could also be a spiritual, moral, or social disorder. Similarly, the treatment of an ill person involves not only aiding his/her physical being, but may also involve the spiritual, moral, and social components of being as well.

Secret Medicine Societies

Practitioners of traditional African medicine are quite different from doctors who practice conventional medicine. It has been said that the former are often priestesses, high priests, diviners, midwives, and herbalists, and are known by different names in different parts of Africa, including sangoma, n’anga, and inyanga.

Colonial Stigmas

During the colonial period, the arrival of Western medicine had a negative impact on traditional African medicine. For instance, ancestral medicine was viewed as inferior, and therefore was stigmatized and marginalized. As a result, the development of this branch of African knowledge was stymied for a long time. In some extreme cases, traditional African medicine was completely banned, due to its association with ‘witchcraft.’ In the eyes of the colonists, this supposed ‘witchcraft’ was regarded as ‘backward’ and ‘superstitious’ and therefore something undesirable that they believed should be eliminated.


It is not clear as to the degree of success achieved by the efforts of the colonialists to eradicate traditional African medicine. Although the colonial authorities were able to pass laws banning such a practice, it would probably have been nearly impossible to stop people from practicing it. Even if they were successful in their efforts, the WHO estimations show that there is a modern resurgence in this practice. Rather than attempting to get rid of traditional African medicine, a contemporary approach shows that it may be far more beneficial to try to learn from traditional practices and work with the practitioners to combat illnesses in Africa.

Source: Ancient origins

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