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!

Medical Doctorate? Register with Lufthansa and get free miles

The safest flight on which I have ever flown was between Minneapolis and Honolulu on a Northwest 757. On my way to a wedding in Maui, I happened to be on the exact same flight as 40 surgeons bound for a conference on the island. Imagine my comfort in knowing that if I choked on a mai thai there would be someone to resuscitate me.

Airlines often give an unofficial token of thanks to medical professionals who help on board a flight during an emergency. Stories range from upgrades to first class to vouchers for the in flight duty-free store to a bottle of Champagne, all small thanks for helping a fellow passenger in need.

German based Lufthansa is now making the process more official in their Doctors on Board program. MDs in the Miles and More program can register prior to departure to be “of use” during a medical emergency, and in return, Lufthansa will deposit 5,000 miles into the doctor’s account.

Note, while it does not say “medical” doctor on the proper site, the registration form does require credentials to be faxed in, so doctors of Mechanical Engineering or Judeo-Christian history need not apply, unless, perhaps, a passenger is having trouble falling asleep.

Planeterra Foundation gives sight to the blind in Tibet

Tibet is one of the most visually stunning places on Earth, but many Tibetans can’t see it.

Blindness is a serious problem in the developing world. Poverty and lack of rural health care means that millions of people around the world go blind because of easily curable maladies such as cataracts.

One of the organizations fighting to stop curable blindness is the Planeterra Foundation, which recently announced a fund raiser and a video contest. For the past two years Planeterra has set up eye clinics in rural Tibetan villages and performed hundreds of surgeries.

“Tibet has one of the highest rates of blindness in the world. Most of this blindness is due to cataracts, a disease associated with aging but also prevalent among children and the working class. Many are unable to reach a hospital because of poverty and lack of transportation. With scattered populations spread across great distances, surgical eye camps are the most efficient way to treat the high rate of disease,” said Planeterra director Richard Edwards.

Such clinics are very cost effective. A donation of $50 pays for cataract surgery, so if you’ve enjoyed the beauty of the Himalayas, this is a good way to give back.

If you’re handy with a video camera, check out the “Her Sight Is Worth It.” video contest sponsored by Planeterra‘s partner Seva Canada. Young, aspiring filmmakers will create a short videos about vision impairment and gender, with the grand prize winner getting a new MacBook. Three winning videos will be screened at the World Community Film Festival and be honored by having sight restored to one girl and one woman in their name.

Planeterra believes in responsible travel and through its parent company Gap Adventures runs “Voluntours” where travelers can help out in schools in Zambia, study sea turtles in Costa Rica, or assisting street children in Peru. All Voluntours include several days of sightseeing too. Planeterra and Gap Travel are co-winners of the 2009 Responsible Travel and Tourism Forum (RTTF) Leadership Award presented by Baxter Travel Media and Air Canada.

Having trekked around a lot of different countries, I’ve seen many, many people stuck in sightless poverty because they can’t afford such a cheap and simple operation. Luckily Planeterra and Seva Canada aren’t the only folks out there tackling the problem. A number of agencies are fighting blindness. When I went to the Kumbh Mela festival in Allahabad, India, in 2001, there was one guru who had set up a free eye clinic and performed hundreds of cataract surgeries. It must have felt like a miracle for the patients to have their sight restored at Hinduism’s holiest festival.

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Where There is No Doctor: a medical handbook for everyone

Every Peace Corps volunteer in The Gambia was given a copy of the book Where There is No Doctor: A village health care handbook so we could find the answer to our prayers in its pages. When one lives off in a village without easy access to medical help, one has a lot of prayers. Rashes, infections that won’t go away, stomach ailments, fevers etc., etc. Knowing how to pay attention to one’s body just to see if “this too shall pass” in a day or two and how to treat ailments oneself–or if a visit to the Peace Corps nurse is needed was part of the two year job that was once called, “The toughest job you’ll ever love.”

I poured over that book. Once, just a week after I moved to my post, convinced that I had maleria, I read the book to check my symptoms, began treating myself and took the next possible vehicle to Banjul, the country capital where the Peace Corps office, thus the nurse, was located at the time.

The journey was a combination of a sedan car taxi service from my village to Kerewan, the province capital, a ferry crossing at Kerewan, a pick-up truck style taxi ride (in the back of the truck) to the mouth of The Gambia River and then another long ferry crossing from one side of the river to the other, and then another taxi ride to the Peace Corps office. I can still feel every bump of the road and taste the red dust that dusted me by the end of the ride. I looked and felt like hell.

Another volunteer from my training group was also down for possible treatment. He had been bit by a monkey and wondered if he should get rabies shots. I can’t remember the details about his shots, but I do remember that I did not have maleria. I did have wicked dreams because of the medication I had already taken.

After I lived in the village for awhile, my visits to the Peace Corps nurse were infrequent, mostly just for booster shots. Where There is No Doctor came in handy. I learned that an infected blister will clear right up if you soak the infested area with hot water, for example. Pushing against the wound to get the pus to come out is a real no no.

Besides teaching me about my own body and health in an accessible way, it was a good read for understanding health concerns on a village level. The book was written for health care workers in the field who were in a village to help assist with medical care. If you’re going to be traveling in a remote area or, even if you’re not, Where There is No Doctor is a wonderful resource to have on hand.

The Doctor is Out

Thailand used to be a destination for exotic travel, perhaps even for sex travel. Now, it is a well-established member of the ever-increasing ranks of surgery destinations. Yes, travel is not just for the well or even the well-heeled, now it’s for the wellness-seeking. too. It’s not just cosmetic surgery, either. While cosmetic surgery comprises about 80% of the travel, laser eye surgery and fertility treatments make up reasons to travel, too.

A while back, our own Erik Olsen blogged about a crazy offer to get extra frequent flyer miles to get your eyes done, and also posted an article by Casey Kittrell about medical tourism. Then, earlier this year, I wrote an article about growing cosmetic surgery tourism to the Czech Republic. Since then, the pace of this traffic has exploded, and the places have gotten even more exotic. So much so, it’s worth revisiting this issue: according to the National Coalition on Health Care, over half a million Americans left the country last year for medical or dental work. A recent article even noted a man sent by his North Carolina company to New Delhi, for gall bladder and rotator cuff surgery, to save $50,000!

Tired of travelocity? A host of surgery-tourism companies have set up shop all over the internet. Costmeticsurgerytravel.com squatted on a good web address, offering “medical travel concierge” service, as well as assurance that the doctors in foreign lands are “appropriate for your procedure or treatment.” Prague a little to run-of-the-mill for you? Try Tunisia, for example, through Cosmeticatravel.com. Or Turkey or El Salvador, through Medretreat.com. Or Brazil, through Medicaltourism.com. A quick google search turns up a page-topping, paid ad for medical tourism to “Bumrungrad” hospital. Is that where you get that hemorrhoid treatment done?

Follow up: The NY Times just posted an article on the same topic.