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Modern West African Market Offers Traditional Remedies for Illness

  • Naomi Seck

Long before there were antibiotics and X-rays, African healers used traditional remedies, made from the plants, to heal people in their communities. In a downtown market in Senegal's capital, Dakar, Naomi Seck met with vendors who say they are continuing this tradition. But some Senegalese say, without the accountability of an ongoing relationship with a small community, some of these so-called healers are able to sell nothing more than a bag of tricks.

On a traffic-filled street in Senegal's capital, Dakar, cell phone covers compete for space with dried crocodile skulls, as sidewalk vendors offer to cure what ails - all for a reasonable, negotiated fee.

Nigerian vendor Ibrahima Cisse describes what is in his market stall.

He offers the skin of a red goat and the horn of a goat.

Cissé and his brother, Ismaillah, use these ingredients and others to make traditional West African amulets, called gri-gris.

Cisse says the goat horn is for an amulet that will protect a house from thieves and from anyone who wants to harm the family.

He says they put religious writings, like special excerpts from the Koran, in the horns. Then, the person has to bury it in the entrance-way of their home. It costs about one dollar.

This crowded street outside one of Dakar's biggest stadiums is the place for street-side traditional medicine. All along the side of the stadium, there are numerous stalls to buy gri-gris as well as natural medications.

Just past Cissé's stall, a mural is on the stadium wall.

On the mural, cartoons depict a variety of medical problems: tuberculosis, malaria, miscarriage and more.

Just beside the mural, Guinean Mohammed Sylla sits by a table covered with bags and jars of powder.

He says, when people are sick they look at the poster to find their sickness. Then he says he can give them the appropriate medication.

Sylla says he is constantly studying and learning about how to treat illnesses. He says he has been training as a traditional healer for about four years.

Long before there were hospitals with modern drugs and equipment, people have turned to natural remedies and traditional rituals. The World Health Organization estimates as much as a quarter of all modern drugs are made from natural ingredients that were first used by traditional healers.

But the WHO also says traditional remedies are often untested and can be ineffective or even dangerous.

Charles Katy Diouf, who works for an organization that promotes traditional healing, says in tightly-knit communities, like small villages, the healers are well-known and the results of their treatment can be seen as neighbors either get cured, or do not.

And, he says, for those healers, healing is not about making money.

"They are not healers as profession," he said. "They work the land, they are shepherds, they have to take care of the cattles, and some of them make some business elsewhere. But healing is something that comes, it's knowledge to help the community only."

But millions of Africans are moving to cities like Dakar, where they no longer have access to their village healers.

Street vendors like Sylla can fill the gap. But as traditions evolve in the big city, it seems the traditional accountability has changed as well.

Sylla says he and his teacher moved to Dakar after a few short trips showed them that the traditional healing business was more profitable here.

He says there is no way to tell by looking if someone is selling an effective cure or a fake one, just like you cannot recognize a thief until he steals from you.

International health organizations like the WHO are calling on governments to craft formal regulations for traditional healers and their treatments. Senegal is working to do just that. But for now, in many countries including Senegal, these regulations are far from complete.

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