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West African Healers Association Bands Together, On Guard Against Charlatans

In many parts of Africa, traditional healing requires no degree or special license. But in Fatick, a small city in central Senegal, one group has taken on the job of organizing and policing traditional healers. Naomi Seck has more from Fatick, Senegal.

A red curtain billows from the open door of a concrete hut. Just outside a group of people sit on plastic chairs in a makeshift circle. They are waiting their turns. Every few minutes or so, someone emerges from the hut, and another person disappears behind the red curtain to consult with the traditional healer within.

Many of these people have traveled over 100 kilometers from Senegal's capital, Dakar, to consult with the traditional healers here.

Lamine Diawara, a doctor at the World Health Organization, says they are just a few of the millions of Africans who seek out traditional medicine when they are sick or facing a problem.

"I know that every time people get ills, they go to traditional [healers]," Diawara said. "Because there, of course, they have a system. Because of their culture, also."

The World Health Organization estimates that more than 80 percent of Africans use traditional medicine as their primary source of health care.

But in many places, like Senegal, there are no formal regulations about who can practice traditional medicine or what treatments they can use.

Diawara says this can sometimes cause problems, as he found when he oversaw a region of Senegal for the Ministry of Health.

"I get big problem in Tambacounda, because there is one man he built a very big center," he said. "And a very lot of people came to him. And we have problems there. Two people died, they tell me. And I go there, I discuss with him, I tell him to stop what he is doing, but now he is continuing to do his medicine."

Diawara says he does not know for sure that the man's traditional healing practice was responsible for the deaths, but he says the problem is that there is no system in place to police people who claim to be traditional healers. Without that, he had no authority to enforce his decision.

The Senegalese government is working to create such a system, but, in the meantime, Diawara says it would help if the healers organized - and policed - themselves.

One organization in Senegal, Malango, is trying to do just that.

On a sunny Sunday, a few dozen of Malango's members meet in an open-sided pavillion in Fatick. They are discussing a recent training they all completed in recognizing HIV andsharing ideas on how to use traditional medicine to treat it.

While anyone can say they are a traditional healer, it is not so easy to become a member of Malango.

Khane Diouf says she can read the future, and counsels people based on what she sees. She is a member of Malango, and served as the association's president for a year.

But before joining, she had to prove her abilities were real.

She says she made specific predictions for rain the following year, and when they came true she was accepted as a member.

Charles Katy Diouf, of Senegal-based PROMETRA, an organization that promotes traditional healing, says the seal of approval of Malango reassures people that the healer is effective.

Currently there are more than 550 members all over Senegal. When members are not able to do what they promised, the association throws them out.

"You lose your membership," said Katy Diouf. "You lose it, and in every village, they say that this healer is no longer a member of our association. And sometimes they also inform your own neighborhood that you now do not belong to our association."

In this way, Malango hopes to eliminate charlatans - people looking to earn money with false cures - from Senegal.

WHO's Diawara says this is what Senegal needs in order to foster productive collaboration between traditional and modern medicine. But he says, on both sides, he thinks there is still a long way to go.