The "Working in Ghana" Project

Traditional Healer

["Mama" a 60-year old widow, has practiced traditional medicine for five years. She shares her household with two sons, their wives, and two other people. She never attended school and does not read or write. Mama spoke with Philip Awekeya in the Gurune language when he interviewed her at her home in Bolgatanga, in Northern Ghana.]

I began working life roughly 40 years ago as an illicit drink seller. I use the words illicit drink because in those days it was illegal to sell the locally produced gin, popularly called akpeteshie, in drinking bars. The only drinks that could be sold in bars were imported brands--gin such as London Bells, White Horse, rum, and Club or Star beer. Anyone caught selling anything other than the specified drinks was in for big trouble.

I changed from selling illicit drinks and baking flour to selling cloth and cooking utensils, mainly to avoid arrest. I was forced to abandon selling cloth and cooking utensils when my husband retired from the police force and we left Kumasi, his place of work, to come back to his hometown in the North. Back here I noticed that the only thriving trade at the time was pito (a local alcoholic drink) brewing and so I took up that until the early eighties when I had to stop because age was telling on me. None of my sons' wives was prepared to fully assist me to continue with the it. After dropping pito brewing, I began to sell water in the local public market, first to avoid the boredom of sitting in the house all day doing nothing and secondly to continue to earn a little income to support my last son who is still in college.

In recent years I have also taken on traditional healing of the sick, specifically those who suffer from waist pains, neck pain, pains in the joints, and serious bone shifts in the leg, arm, or the kneecap due to accidents or from falling from trees or other considerable heights. I also do a little bit of farming in the wet season to supplement my small earnings and to exercise my body.

As a traditional healer I use mainly herbs. Whenever an accident victim is brought to me with some parts of the bone not in their right position, I first of all go into my room to perform some sacrifice to my ancestors' gods from whom I have inherited the power to heal bodily pains and treat bone problems. After I have appeased my ancestors' gods I then proceed to examine the patient's affected part to identify the nature of the problem. When I finish with the examination, I burn some herbs and direct the smoke to the region of the problem for about five minutes. I then grind the burned herbs, mix them with cocoa butter, and apply the mixture to the problem area. I use my fingers to press the bone back into position. Sometimes I have to pull the affected bone until I hear a splashing noise, which indicates that the bone has fallen into the right position. When the pressing, pulling, and application of the mixed herbs is over I then allow the patient to be taken home. I send along with him or her some of the burned herb mixture.

For those who suffer bodily pains, waist pains, neck pains, and pain in the joints, I similarly perform sacrifices to my ancestors' gods before burning some herbs and directing the smoke to the parts of the body giving the patient trouble. When I finish treating the patient I give him or her some of the herbs to carry home and to continue the treatment for at least ten days before reporting back to me. Many patients get relief after the first course of treatment, but for those who still complain of the same problem I normally change to another set of herbs, just as is done in orthodox medicine.

In addition to using herbs for treating my patients, I also wrap a tiny special herb in a white cloth and sew it up for my patients to wear in the form of a talisman to ward off evil spirits that torment them at night and give them pains.

My job as a traditional healer is taxing because at my old age I still have to go to the bush to look for special herbs. I still maintain the fee of four pesewa (an amount less than one cent) for a female and three pesewa for a male. This was the fee charged by my great grandmother and I keep strictly to it in order not to break bond with my ancestors' gods. Most of my counterparts have in recent times broken off with the ancient fees and are charging their patients thousands of cedis (one thousand cedis was then about $2) in addition to asking payment in the form of animals. I enjoy what I am doing, first to relieve human beings of their ailments and secondly, to have peace with my ancestors who used to haunt me frequently because I refused to take up traditional healing. Healing has been associated with my family tree for very many years.

I am sometimes disappointed with the attitude of my some of my patients, who do not go strictly by the rules I spell out to them during the period of taking the treatment, such as abstaining from pito and sex. When these rules are broken the patient's condition never improves and this means I have to start the whole course afresh. Also, patients who are cured are expected to return to me my herb containers, and in addition to bring me a sizable hen or rooster. Some patients forget these things when they become well. Despite these human failures, I get on well with a good number of my patients. On several occasions some of the people I treat return to show their appreciation by giving me money--a thousand cedis or more. Some of them bring me soap while others buy cloth and bring it to me. Judging from the nice gifts I receive from past patients, it is clear that my performance is excellent. And I get several referral cases from the central hospital and medical centers.

Unlike most traditional healers who are rushing to join the Traditional Healers Association of Ghana, I have never considered becoming a member. I feel that people who go there want a way to commercialize their vocations. But since I do not intend to raise my consultancy and treatment fees, I see no point in joining an association. Besides I feel my ancestors' gods guide to me those they want to receive relief and that it is not for me to go out publicizing the work I do. I trust that my ancestors' gods will bring those who need my services to my "treatment pot."

My household members, tenants, and community members all appear to like the work I am doing and therefore accord me a great deal of respect. Most of them think that I am doing well by devoting my time and energy to bringing relief to those suffering from pain afflicted on them by evil spirits. Apart from the fact that I help to promote both the family and the village name through the work I do, I also derive lots of material benefits which I use to assist my two sons and their families and thus help supplement the house income. What I get from my patients, though small and irregular, and from the sale of water in the market, I am able to support my last son who is currently attending college.

My advice to fellow traditional healers is that they should view their work as a way of serving God by helping the sick to get relief of their afflictions by evil spirits. They should avoid pride and lust for money and attend to their patients with devoted hearts, irrespective of their social status, tribe, or religion. In short, money should never be the goal of any traditional healer, as it is among those in orthodox medicine, where patients are attended to only on the basis of their ability to pay and not out of the medical officers' love for saving life or bringing relief to those who are suffering.