The World Health Organization estimates that 80% of Africans use traditional medicines. In Ghana, over half of the children with malaria are first treated with herbs.
Professor Samuel Danquah is a clinical psychologist who has done research into traditional medical practices. He says most Ghanaians believe illness is linked to supernatural powers, including witches, deities and ancestral spirits.
When these people are sick they often go to practitioners who are not trained in Western medicine and rely on cultural practices and beliefs.
One traditional healer, Modecai Osei-TuTu, does not invoke the spirits of deities or dead relatives, but he has found a way of incorporating the spiritual into his work. Displayed prominently on one side of his herbal shop are pictures of Biblical figures.
"I introduced these pictures for [clients] to know that the Lord God Almighty knows everything. He knows our sicknesses, he knows our problems. So when you come and I introduce these pictures, you know that God heals,” says Osei- Tutu.
Osei-Tutu treats diseases such as typhoid, malaria fever and diabetes. He has different types of herbal preparations packaged in small plastic bags. They are arranged on shelves in a metal structure that serves as both shop and consulting room. The treatments include garlic syrup and the seeds and leaves from the moringa tree.
Osei-Tutu says his herbal preparations are potent and provide relief for at least some conditions.
“We have patients who are sexually weak. I can give them medicine when they use it, it works well. Even I use some,” he says.
Another traditional healer, Comfort Biney, has a small wooden shop located along a busy road in Accra. Inside, the floor is strewn with the bark and roots of plants and other herbs, which she sometimes trips over.
Like Osei-Tutu, Biney learned about healing from family members. In Ghana and much of Africa, traditional knowledge is often a closely guarded secret, handed down from one generation to the next.
“My mother’s father is a traditional healer. He taught my mother and I am also learning from my mother. Now I can [prescribe some herbs],” says Victoria Arthur, Biney’s daughter.
The role of the family in passing on the art of traditional healing is being challenged by a training program in herbal medicine at the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi. It’s an effort to standardize the practice and make it internationally acceptable.
A number of herbal clinics have started hiring graduates of the program. The clinics prescribe herbal treatments and monitor for side effects. They also teach treatments based on Western science and try to reduce reliance on the supernatural. Most of the clinics are located in towns and cities.