Gynecologist Erick Gbodossou says traditional medicine has a lot to offer modern healing techniques, so he built a hospital in Fatick, Senegal to use the scientific method to prove it. At the center, microscope-wielding lab techs work alongside African seers reading fortunes in the sand.
A Senegalese woman who asked to identified only as Mariam is having her fortune read. The fortune teller, Bougar Diop, talks to her about an expected grandchild, and reminds her to be more proactive in her life.
To see these details, Diop has completed a complicated ritual on a bed of sand in front of him. He began by scattering a string of bottle caps on the sand. Then he traced a repeating pattern with his fingers. Each iteration represents one part of the woman's fortune.
Diop says he inherited his ability to see futures from his father.
He says what he sees is like a vast ocean, and it is up to the client to indicate where to look by asking a question.
Mariam says she has never come to a fortune teller before.
She says as a Christian, she is not a connoisseur of such things, but with her family facing problems, she felt like she had to try any possibility.
Although Mariam says she was impressed by her reading, a note of skepticism remains.
She says feels better, but she will wait to see if events confirm what Diop has told her.
But gynecologist Erick Gbodossou is working hard to eliminate the skepticism felt by Mariam and many others, including those who practice what Gbodossou calls conventional or western medicine. "We say if we want to promote traditional medicine, we need to prove to Western people that it is not so bad. To prove this we need to use their own system, their own databases, their own way to make a diagnosis. To follow and to see the evolution. It is why in this center we use the conventional system, the conventional database to measure the (effectiveness) of traditional practices."
Gbodossou's center is here in Fatick, a small city in Senegal, about 100 kilometers outside the capital. At the center, lab technicians use modern diagnostic tools, including blood tests, to identify an illness, but traditional healers treat it. Then the techs repeat the diagnostic tests to see if the traditional treatment has been effective.
Gbodossou, who founded an organization to promote traditional healing, called PROMETRA, says an unpublished study analyzing results from 10 years at the center showed that 65-percent of the patients were cured, and 25-percent showed good improvement.
Many of the treatments include medications made from local plants.
But he says natural, local drugs are not the only thing traditional medicine has to offer. He says the most important aspect of traditional medicine that he hopes conventional doctors will learn from can perhaps be symbolized by the interaction between Mariam and her fortune teller.
"The healers, they give time to study the patient, global, holistic. This helps to know more than just the physical body. And when you see also the therapeutic approach, they can give you medicinal plant, but added to that they have some ritual, and they have some kind of communication between the healer and the patient."
Gbodossou says in his medical practice, he often sees patients without prescribing any drugs. He says he just listens to them.
The World Health Organization says there is not enough data on many traditional medicine treatments. While some treatments work, they say some others can be not only ineffective but dangerous.
But the WHO says as many as a third of people in developing countries lack access to conventional medical care, and promoting safe and effective methods of traditional medicine can help keep more people healthy.