IN THIS AGE of organ transplants, pacemakers, laser surgery and other mind-boggling medical realities, it is hard to believe that anyone would seriously consider the healing as of the African witch doctor. But, if you were one of the countless Americans who has spent thousands of shrinking dollars of medical treatment and advice only to find yourself no closer to a cure than the first day you set foot in the doctor's office, you might start looking elsewhere.
Take Sheldon Ritter, a New York public relations executive who was plagued by a knee problem that had left him with a severe limp. He consulted specialist after specialist, but to no avail. He was poked, tested, prodded and X-rayed. The bills arrived regularly and reached astronomical propositions, yet after each consultation he was told that there was nothing wrong.
On a business trip to Dakar, Senegal, Ritter had heard about guerisseurs and marabouts the traditional healers whose powers were said to be legendary.
I was a little nervous," he admitted, "but I took the plunge, and I don't mind telling you I wasn't too impressed when we got there. He [a marabout ] was sitting on a rug down a back street somewhere I'd never been. He sat me down on a stool and had me roll up my pants leg. Then he felt my knee and reched into a rusty fruit juice can with water and a rag in it. He wiped my knee and said something to my friend who turned to me and said. He says you've got bad blood."
When the marabout took a much-used knife from a box alongside him, Ritter began to have strong second thoughts. "The next thing I knew," Ritter declared, "he started making decisions. I was scared stiff, but I have to admit I didn't feel a thing."
In all, the marabout made 18 small incisions. Thick, dark blood began oozing out, which he collected in another old fruit juice can. Next he scooped a handful of brown powder from a bowl and smeared it over the entire area. Ritter turned pale; visions of tetanus and blood poisoning loomed in his brain. He threw a nervous glance at his friend, who said reassuringly, "Don't worry, no infection."
Then the marabout wrapped the knee in a simple bandage and announced that he would like to see his patient once more on the following day. When Ritter heard the translation he shook his head and said, "Tell him I can't make it. My plane leaves for New York at 2 a.m." This was relayed to the marabout , who nodded sagely and replied. "He says that's all right," the friend translated. "He told me to tell you your leg will be fine in a day or two."
Ritter said, "I was still nervous, but it was done and all I could do now was hope for the best. All I can tell you is that when I got off the plane the next day, at first my wife didn't recognize me. It was the first time in three years I hadn't walked with a limp." He admits that his leg still gives him an occasional twinge, but the limp is gone and he insists that he feels 100 percent better.
Admittedly, Ritter's experience is extraordinary, at least for an urban American. Even if others wanted desperately to follow his example, most people in similar circumstances couldn't possibly afford a trip to Africa.
However, the American medical profession is now beginning to cast a curious eye at traditional African medicine and, on a small scale, planning to do something about it. In July, a series of tours to study traditional African medicine began in cooperation with the University of Arizona Medical School.
THE IDEA FOR the tour was born in 1971 with Ingo Bloendal, an Icelandic tour operator living in Accra, Ghana, who was initiated as a subchief in a small tribe of fishing people. On the occasion of a death in the village he was summoned to a solemn ritual but he was in bed with a bad case of dysentery. He tried to avoid making the trip, but the queen mother of the tribe refused to take no for an answer. She assured him that if he could only struggle through the trip he would be healed.
Skeptical, as he was, Bloendal realized he couldn't turn the old woman down and, anticipating a painful and arduous journey, he started out. When he finally reached the village he was not, thirsty, doubled over the cramps and thoroughly exhausted. He was taken to one of the village holy places and ushered into the presence of two healers.
While he reclined on a mat, incantations were chanted to the throbbing beat of drums. At the climax of the ritual a goat was slaughtered, libations were poured over sacred stones and he was given a potion containing, among other things, fresh blood from the sacrifical animal. In less than an hour the dysentery was gone. He participated in the ceremonies, and later returned to Accra in perfect health.
The experience made an indelible impression on him. As a European he had always respected the African people, but regarded their beliefs as nothing more than mumbo jumbo. They were rooted in African tradition, and for Africans these traditional practices worked. Yet here he was, an outsider, a nonbeliever and the healing had worked as effectively for him as it had for the villagers. As he traveled up and down the West African coast, he began seeking out both the traditional healers and western-trained physicians, always asking questions.
He came to some intriguing conclusions. There were modern hospitals in all the large cities and a significant number of western-trained practitioners. But the old ways were far from dead. Not only did villagers from remote bush areas rely on traditional healers in times of sickness, but so did city dwellers, including those with university educations, as well as foreigners from all parts of the globe.
The traditional healers practiced their arts as their forefathers had because it was "the way things must be done." But, being highly intuitive individuals, they clearly recognized that in certain areas western medicine could accomplish things beyond the range of their skills.
In addition, members of the medical establishment began to recognize, somewhat reluctantly, that there were areas of the body and mind that respond only to ministrations of healers in the traditional manner, especially in the field of mental health. There was failure after frustrating failure to cure patients who were confined in western-style asylums after being wrenched away from their traditional village cultures.
By the time Ingo Bloendal began to explore the situation, considerable strides had been made toward a workable collaboration between traditional healers and the medical profession. Hospital conditions were improved; healers were invited to come and work side by side with hospital personnel; therapeutic villages providing a comfortable, familiar environment were established for patients.
Bloendal saw that in the West there was a growing concern that traditional western medicine was not adequately serving the public need. There was a burgeoning interest in holistic medicine, nutrition, faith healing and acupuncture. What was happening in West Africa offered living proof that the new and the old, working harmoniously together, were infinitely more beneficial than the two systems working independently and often at odds.
He conceived the idea of establishing a tour program aimed primarily at the medical profession, but open to anyone, which could enable foreigners to visit African hospitals, therapeutic communities and exchange ideas not only with their professional peers, but with the traditional healers as well.
I was one of three journalists invited by Bloendal to come to Africa for a preview of this tour. Our itinerary, confined to the republic of Senegal, included the Fann Hospital Center in Dakar and two therapeutic communities in the Casamance region to the south.
When we arrived we were still thinking in the old stereo-typed terms of witch doctors and rattles, wands and masks. This image was quickly dispelled when we met our first "witch doctor," Taban, a strikingly serene-looking man with gentle yet piercing eyes.
Like all the Senegalese we met, he greeted us with warm handshakes and extreme dignity. He spoke only the Wolof tongue, the second most widely used language in the country after French, and through an interpreter he informed us directly that the expression "witch doctor" was strictly declase. He was a guerisseur , a healer.
Taban had worked with Prof. Henri Collomb, head psychiatrist at Fann Hospital, for seven years. Before that he had worked with a Belgian psychiatrist in the north. He explained that healers like himself were excellent diagnosticians. When they recognized functional disorders they could not treat they sent patients to medical doctors. He specifically cited as examples brain lesions, liver ailments, stomach lesions, inflamed lungs and severed intestines.
Certainly none of this sounded anything like what we had expected to hear from the lips of a "witch doctor." Finally he got down to the matter of the supernatural. The most important function of the healer, he explained, was to treat possession by demons, evil spirits, the devil and the malevolent effects of sorcery. The most prevalent evil force was one he called a dom . There is a potential dom in each of us, he said, and in certain persons it works its evil by making the individual a sorcerer, who, consciously or not, transmits the evil to others.
PROF. COLLOMB told us we had the rare opportunity to attend an ancient ceremony of exorcism taking place later that evening at the outskirts of the city. It was a ritual that was old before the prophet Mohammed was born, and it epitomized traditional African healing. The n'dop lasted for 12 days and culminated in the sacrifice of a cow. As with the other healers he knew, Collomb explained that the exorcist, an old woman, worked very closely with the staff of Fann Hospital. We were elated.
That night we found ourselves in a half-deserted district on the outskirts of Dakar that looked as if it was in the midst of a blackout. There were no street lights, no pavement; only stray glimmers of dim, flickering lamplight glowed from occasional windows of the low, flat houses.
We had barely settled down on our hard wooden benches when our guide explained that we had to go into the house of the exorcist. The exorcist, an immense elderly woman, was dressed in a beautiful, billowing, red print robe festooned with jujus, amulets, bangles and shells.
Beaming enthusiastically, she welcomed us by brandishing her ceremonial cow's tail whisk, and introduced us one by one to a group of brilliangly gowned women. Each one, she explained, had been exorcised by her on previous occasions, and all now enjoyed perfect health. It was easy to spot the woman who was possessed - she was downcast, morose and ill-at-ease. She did not appear disturbed by our presence, however. The evil spirit possessing her had been identified and she knew that tonight it would be driven out and she would be cured.
Taking her place in the midst of the crowd the old woman gave a signal and the drumming began in earnest. Slow and steady at first, the volume rose and the rhythmic throbbing grew to a thunderous crescendo as the dancers moved to the tempo. It was impossible not to swept up by the spirit of it all.
Above the thunder of the drums there arose an unearthly chant in the gutteral Wolof tongue. The exorcist raised her whisk and shook it at the one possessed. Suddenly the other dancers fell back. The possessed woman was alone. Her eyes rolled back, showing only the whites. She stiffened, her arms flailed about, and then she fell to the ground. Amid the roar of the drums the exorcist danced about, shaking her whisk at the writhing woman, who wriggled spasmodically like a dying serpent. Without warning, she emitted a blood-curdling shriek and went limp. Jubilant cries arose from the crowd. The drums still thundered, but at a slower, gradually more subdued level. The exorcist bent over, helped the woman to a sitting position, beads of sweat glistening on her face. Blinking, breathing heavily, the sitting woman looked around her, now smiling triumphantly. The evil spirit had fled. The patient was healed.