Traditional medicine was once thought of as sorcery or quackery. But the craft is slowly gaining the respect of conventional medical practitioners as its methods and medicines are studied more fully. In Senegal, one group is promoting greater collaboration between practitioners of the two kinds of healing, and has taken measures to get rid of impostors. VOA's Scott Bobb has this report from Dakar.
Kham Diouf is a Senegalese traditional healer who for years has used cowry shells to help people improve their health and lives.
Diouf lives and works in Fatiq, a town 100 kilometers east of Dakar.
Her neighbor Bougar Diop heals by reading grains of sand.
Today Diop is helping Mariam who has family problems. Mariam sees a conventional doctor when she is ill, but says consulting a traditional healer is part of her tradition. "I am very Catholic, but when you have children you have to do it," she said. "I had no other way. As an African woman you mix religion and African beliefs."
Diop says his powers are as vast as the sea.
"You cannot capture everything that is in the sea. You have to look inside it and choose what you want, ask the questions you have," Diop said.
Dr. Erick Gbodossou has worked with traditional healers for 30 years and founded PROMETRA, an association that promotes understanding of traditional medicine.
"Conventional medicine just works on the physical body. But traditional medicine works in the holistic approach," PROMETRA founder, Erick Gbodossou, Physician said. "This is very different, very important. Because the human being is not just an organ, mechanical, no; the human being is all."
Dr. Gbossodou's Center for Traditional Medicine in Fatiq, promotes collaboration between the two kinds of treatment.
Center Director, Charles Katy-Diop says the sick are diagnosed with modern equipment but their treatment is by traditional methods.
"The medical doctor is here only for examinations, for blood analysis and so on. But he is not allowed to give treatment because it is a traditional (healing) center," Katy-Diop said.
Traditional medicines have been used for ages to fight disease. They are organic and inexpensive.
Ousmane Badji prepares medicines from roots and leaves which he says can cure diseases ranging from high blood pressure and diabetes to hemorrhoids and impotence.
Traditional medicines are also sold at special markets in Dakar. Some stalls also make talismans called gri-gri's which are used for protection and all sorts of cures.
Owner Ibrahima Cisse says some gri-gri's are made with powders while others contain a verse from the Koran, a specific verse for each ailment.
The traditional healers in Fatiq have founded a professional association that tests healers and punishes impostors, or charlatans.
"They (healers) are very strong and very severe in the fight against charlatans. And every year they punish one or two of them," Center Director Katy-Diop said.
Dr. Gbodossou's PROMETRA group also trains traditional healers to teach their patients basic health care, sanitation and prevention of HIV/AIDS.
"Today I think that we are helping them (healers) to play a key role like (as) I.E.C. agents--information, education and communication--regarding health in their community," Dr. Gbodossou said.
The World Health Organization says 85 percent of the population in Africa consults traditional healers and says as a result they can be a powerful means of promoting better health on the continent.