When an African gets sick, a lack of trained doctors or medicine leads many to traditional practices, especially spiritual cures, some using religion, and appeals to ancestors.
Western medicine attributes disease in part to germs according to Professor Samuel Danquah a psychologist at the University of Ghana. By contrast, he says both good and bad health can have some spiritual implications for the African.
“When x-rays and laboratory tests are not conclusive, the African is left in a state of doubt, and solutions are sought from outside sources. If orthodox medicine doesn’t work and the African uses his belief system, that he has sinned against God, in which case he will use a priest," explains Professor Danquah.
"If he has sinned against the lesser gods, he consults spirits and shrines. If he believes the cause to be witchcraft, he also sees the shrine."
Traditional priests may either prescribe herbal treatments or certain rituals.
“Even to go and pluck the leaves, the priest has to say many incantations, without which the herbs may not work. And before they do that, they ask [the sick person] to slaughter a goat [as a sacrifice] before the leaves can work,” says Professor Danquah.
He says people will pay for the priest to invoke the spirit behind the treatment. This reinforces the African belief in the supernatural and makes the treatment more acceptable.
For people who go to churches with health problems, Danquah says their needs are met based upon their faith.
Apart from medical intervention, some people’s beliefs are so strong that they benefit from it according to Danquah.
Danquah says the church works on such patients by drawing upon their faith.
“When you go there they will never let you go. They have answers for all your problems. They lay hands on you and you can see a person falling and Ghanaians are thrilled,” he says.
Africans are not alone in using alternative treatments for illness.
In the West, some psychologists say spiritual and religious support can help a patient recover from certain illnesses. Others say talk therapy helps patients cope with mental illnesses that may not have a physical basis, including depression.
Danquah says in Ghana, the stigma attached to mental illness prevents many people from going to psychologists.