A Day with Traditional Healers


February 13, 2008

By David Elcott

Who would have thought that the future of modernization and better health in Uganda may be dependant on what we would call "witch doctors" but are better known here as traditional healers? These traditional healers have something going for them – they are community-based, trusted leaders who use herbs and incantations to heal. And now, thanks to AJWS support for an NGO called THETA, these local healers are being brought together with the medical professionals, the doctors and nurses trained at universities, to address HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and other diseases that are ravaging Africa. And today we were witness to just one remarkable success of this project.

We traveled deep into the jungle of rural Uganda, an area of abject poverty filled with banana trees and sugar cane growing from burnt red soil. We were greeted by what seemed to be the whole community: children in lines like a choir prepared to sing; women waiting patiently for us as they breastfed their babies; and men standing on the side observing. The traditional healer was late – she was delivering a baby. When she arrived she explained that she is paired with the clinic that is miles away on the main road. She counsels pregnant women to get tested for HIV, she brings those who test positive back into the community and protects them from rejection, she has adopted seven young children who are infected orphans and she helps feed all the orphans in the community. Through the training and nurturing she has received from this remarkable NGO supported by AJWS, she can use the trust the community has in her to offer them medical options they once would have rejected had they even known these options exist.

The director of THETA proudly told us how this program of pairing traditional healers with medical practitioners has been brought to all parts of Uganda and, even more remarkably, how AJWS brought leaders of an NGO from Honduras to Uganda to learn how to create a partnership to bring traditional healers and medical practitioners together.

The AJWS contingent sang in Hebrew and in English, bringing the children and the adults into the songs and the more talented among us danced with the villagers.

These relationships are always complicated – are we the overbearing, wealthy Americans treating the indigenous population as some experiment to be observed? Hard as it is to cross cultures and languages, we experienced this differently. Not only were we in this village to see the great successes and give honor to their diligence and innovation, we also came to learn so that we can give voice to the voiceless, to those who will be heard only because we are telling their story and translating their struggles to you who are reading this. And we who are privileged to bear witness and share for a moment the lives of those we visited hope that you will now tell their story as well.