An interview with a traditional African healer

healer, traditional medicine, HararAt first glance, Alia Abdi doesn’t look like someone who can cure cancer with a simple recipe. A middle-aged wife and mother living in a typical home at the end of a rambling alley in Harar’s old city, she offers visitors hot coffee and a ready smile, like any other hostess in this hospitable town.

Alia gets a lot of visitors. She’s a traditional Ethiopian healer, with a variety of herbal recipes to cure everything from liver trouble to Hepatitis B to, she says, cancer.

I first heard about Alia through the Harari tour guide Nebil Shamshu Muhammed (nebilha20@ yahoo.com) who was suffering from jaundice. He felt ill and listless and his eyes and tongue had turned an unhealthy yellow. Nebil went to a regular hospital where he was given medicine and instructions about his diet. The medicine gave him a fever and the food he was supposed to eat made him ill.

Five days and a 1625 birr ($95) later, he stopped taking the medicine and decided to go to a traditional healer. Alia studied his symptoms and asked him questions about his appetite and how he felt. Healers don’t make a diagnosis of a particular disease; they look at the symptoms as a whole and brew up a medicine based on that. She presented him with an herbal concoction to take, saying “Pay me what you can. If you’re poor, don’t pay me at all.” Nebil gave her 300 birr ($18)

He took the mixture and proceeded to throw up for the entire day. That was part of the process, Alia assured him.

“After that I felt clean. My fever was gone,” Nebil said.

He looked better too. I have no medical training but I could see his yellow pallor had faded and he had more energy. I decided to visit Alia myself, taking along Helen Sepal, a senior in the pharmacy department at Haramaya University. Reclining on pillows on the floor of Alia’s living room as she burned incense and heated up coffee in a pot set atop glowing coals, she told us about her path to becoming a healer.”I learned from my mother-in-law,” she says, “I’ve been doing this for 14 years. Only one child of each generation is chosen to learn the secrets.”

And secrets they are. Each healer has his or her own cures and they don’t share them with anyone but their apprentice, not even other healers. Alia has 47 recipes, some of which cure more than one malady, but all she’ll say about them is that they’re made from mixtures of local plants.

“Why don’t you share this with us? It would be useful if all the healers pooled their knowledge,” Helen asks.

Alia shrugs and gives a noncommittal, “I’ll think about it.”

Unlike some practitioners of alternative medicine in the West, Alia respects modern medicine. She uses it herself sometimes, and if someone is already taking Western medicine, she won’t give them any of her own because the interaction of different medications could hurt them. Alia studies Western medicine from the sidelines, working as a janitor at a local hospital and asking patients what kind of treatments they’re getting. If she thinks she can help, she’ll give some advice of her own.

Alia also differs from some African healers in that she doesn’t claim to be able to treat HIV. Nebil says many are scared to.

“A healer in Kenya said he had a cure for AIDS and health professionals killed him. They were jealous. Other healers heard this and don’t reveal their secrets now. If they have a cure for AIDS they only use it for relatives.”

Whether this story is true or not is hard to say, but if the healers believe it, it’s stopped them from trying to treat one of Africa’s biggest health problems.

Alia wants to make it clear that she’s no witch. While she does pray to help her patients, there’s no sorcery involved. All her cures are based on herbal mixtures. She also shows a practical side, telling her patients to get proper rest, to take vitamins, and to eat well. Alia admits a certain placebo effect too.

“Sometimes when a person thinks they’ll be cured they get better,” she says with a smile.

After finishing our coffee we say goodbye. Nebil was already a believer in traditional medicine, as are most Ethiopians. Helen and I are impressed too. Helen repeats her comment that healers and Western-style doctors should work together. This is a refreshing change from the knee-jerk negative reaction to traditional medicine I’ve seen from some health professionals. After all, if a people have lived in a region for centuries, it makes sense that they’ve discovered the medicinal properties of the local plants. While I’m doubtful about some of the more grandiose claims like being able to cure cancer, considering that modern medicine hasn’t done a very good job at curing this disease either, it would be a good idea to check out what the healers are doing.

This probably won’t happen, though. Competitors rarely cooperate, and the doctors in the hospitals and the healers in the private homes will continue to treat their patients separately, even though these patients may benefit from both traditional and Western medicine getting together and sharing what they know.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Harar, Ethiopia: two months in Africa’s City of Saints

Coming up next: A visit to an African market!