Nov. 20, 2018

Social Welfare and Traditional Healing

Traditional healers play an important role in Africa, serving not only as healers but as keepers of indigenous knowledge and cultural traditions.

South Africa is no exception.

On Friday, Nov. 16, The Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy hosted an event: “Traditional Healing and Social Welfare.” Spearheaded by Batten Professor Jeanine Braithwaite, the event brought together scholars from the University of Venda and the University of Limpopo, both located in South Africa, to discuss the collaborative work being done in the social sciences on traditional healing and social welfare in South Africa. 

Professor Braithwaite, having worked at the World Bank for twenty years as a senior economist, has a deep understanding of what impedes development, particularly when it comes to issues of social welfare and health.

“Traditional healers play a prominent role in South African society,” said Braithwaite, “South Africa has a dual health system, where patients will consult both the local traditional healer and doctor educated and trained in western medicine, depending on the illness. And sometimes patients will see both at the same time for the same complaint.”

African traditional healing is complex and has a long and rich history that involves a holistic integration of mental and spiritual guidance, herbs, nutrition, and physical therapy, and is also linked to African cosmology. A number of scholars argue that traditional healing and spirituality, religion, philosophy, culture, and society are interconnected as aspects of being where all of life is seen as a unitary field and where the spiritual and physical worlds are one. This forms the foundational doctrine of traditional African morals and ethics and emphasizes collective identity. 

“Traditional healing is a millennia-old practice, that is critically understudied, misrepresented and misunderstood throughout the world,” said Batten student Cameron Haddad (MPP ‘20). “New research, however, is increasingly showing that traditional healers can serve as a unique and untapped resource to address serious health care challenges within countries. They maintain extremely high levels of trust within communities and are incredibly important culturally as well.”

Haddad first became involved in Braithwaite’s research project during his second year at UVA. “My background up to that point was in the study of economics, history, and cultures, and this project embodied all of these interests. I thought it would be a fantastic opportunity to further pursue my own interests in an applied project, and so I became a research assistant with Professor Braithwaite investigating the relationship between traditional healing and social welfare.”

Traditional healers fill in health care gaps left by Western biomedical health clinics. After apartheid, many doctors left the country. And citizens who now leave the country to study medicine rarely, if ever, return. There’s a brain-drain problem—an all too familiar narrative for so many developing nations in desperate need of trained and educated professionals. Increasing the understanding, recognition, protection, and support for traditional healers has immense implications for South Africa’s fight against widespread poverty and chronic diseases such as HIV/AIDs.

South Africa’s Department of Labor estimates that there are 33,000 Western biomedical personnel for  54 million people in South Africa. This is a staggering ratio for a country that has the fourth highest rate of  HIV/AIDS and the largest number of cases in absolute terms in the world. “This is a huge problem,” said Braithwaite. “Of course, the traditional healers know that they cannot cure AIDS, and they will refer HIV/AIDS positive people to Western clinics.”

For a country facing a huge health crisis compounded by a lack of resources, traditional healers may have a new role to play. “If you have HIV—much like Tuberculosis, you must take medicine with food at a specific time of day,” explains Braithwaite. “But, many people don’t always have food or remember when to take their medicine. This is why nurses or physician assistants are now paid to monitor patients with TB.  Might it be possible to do the same with Traditional Healers and HIV/AIDS in South Africa?”

Physician assistants are a huge cost and one that the South African government cannot sustain. Because of the historical role of traditional healers and the high level of trust they have in South African society, there could be a new opportunity to use traditional healers in the fight against HIV/AIDs.

For the Batten School to be partnering with the University of Venda in an initiative of this caliber is not only exciting but also extremely critical. By supporting cross-cultural communication and understanding, Batten professors such as Braithwaite are able to bring global academics and practitioners together to tackle pressing policy issues.

Braithwaite is grateful for support from UVa’s Center for Global Health, which has lead in developing the partnership with the University of Venda over the past 18 years, and funded student travel to South Africa in 2017 and 2018.  Funding for the Symposium also came from Batten’s Global Policy Center and CGH.  Student research was supported by Harrison and Faculty Global Research with undergraduate grants.

“This research project [reflects] a growing partnership between the University of Virginia and the University of Venda,” said Haddad. “Batten is fostering a collaborative environment, in which learning and knowledge are shared, and the school is reaffirming its commitment and efforts to generating future, global leaders.”