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Zanzibar Registers Traditional Healers

Traditional healer Bi Mwanahija Mzee (C) checks the diaper of a child who was brought in for constipation in Zanzibar City, Tanzania, January 31, 2019. (REUTERS/Nicky Woo)
Zanzibar Registers Traditional Healers
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Tanzanian traditional healers have been using special plants, religious writings and massages to treat the sick for generations. Now officials on the islands of Zanzibar want to register the healers in hopes of creating rules governing their methods.

Leaders in Zanzibar passed the Traditional and Alternative Medicine Act, which called for registrations, in 2009. Since then, they have registered about 340 healers.

Hassan Combo is the government registrar at the council that keeps records of the healers. Combo told the Reuters news service there are an estimated 2,000 additional healers, known as mgangas, hoping to register.

Traditional healer Bi Mwanahija Mzee has already registered. The 56-year-old treats people at her busy clinic, where women line up in the early morning sun holding their sick children.

One family recently sought treatment for a child suffering from an umbilical hernia. The family was worried that if the child was taken to a hospital for an operation to remove the hernia, he would die. A pregnant woman who had many failed pregnancies in the past came for support, medicine and prayers that her baby would survive.

“People come here because I actually help them. I met many patients that went to hospital first and got no help or the medicine didn’t work,” said Mwanahija Mzee. “This is my job six days a week for more than 20 years, so I do better, know more than them. Patients that come to me don’t die.”

Mwanahija Mzee’s parents were also traditional healers in Zanzibar, a group of islands in the Indian Ocean.

To be registered, mgangas must be at least 18 years old, have at least three years of experience and have a letter of support from a trained mganga. A council of 11 members that can include birth attendants, respected healers, village elders and legal experts approves the requests each month.

Combo explained that the government does not tell healers what treatments they can and cannot use. But it tries to work with them on issues like quality control to ensure plants used in medicines are all of the same quality, for example.

A group organized by the registrars’ office links doctors with traditional healers to give them some medical education. The mgangas share information about patients with the doctors, he said.

Some healers use plants. Others use religious writings from the Muslim holy book, the Koran. Most use both. Belief in spirits like djinns is widespread.

Some healers, like Haji Mrisho, mainly give blessings to pregnant women to prevent djinns from taking spiritual control of their unborn babies. Others, like sheikhs at the Shifaa Herbal clinic, read the Koran to remove djinns blamed for many diseases.

Mwanahija Mzee uses a mix of massages, medicines from roots and other plant material and readings from the Koran, which may be written on a plate in red food coloring. The plate is then cleaned with water, and the patient drinks the water as part of the treatment.

Nadra holds her eight-month-old child Muhammad Ali, in their living room in Zanzibar City, Tanzania, February 3, 2019. Nadra took Muhammad to a traditional healer, Bi Mwanahija Mzee, to seek relief for her child suffering from an umbilical hernia.
Nadra holds her eight-month-old child Muhammad Ali, in their living room in Zanzibar City, Tanzania, February 3, 2019. Nadra took Muhammad to a traditional healer, Bi Mwanahija Mzee, to seek relief for her child suffering from an umbilical hernia.

Some patients like Fatma Hamad said they trust traditional healers more than health workers in the overcrowded public hospitals, which have little financial support. Many people feel their illnesses are not treated correctly.

Makunduchi Hospital is the second-largest government-run hospital on Zanzibar’s main island. Fatawi Haji Hafidh heads the hospital. He says overworked doctors and other employees may not have the right equipment or time to see patients.

Patients may also be unable to pay for medicine, or they may stop taking it before they are fully cured. This causes them to get sick again and adds to their distrust of government-run hospitals, he said.

Many people in Zanzibar simply believe djinns are the problem.

Fatma Hamad took her 2-year-old daughter to a hospital when the girl was no longer able to move one of her legs because of a high fever. Unable to find the problem through X-rays, the hospital suggested she seek out a traditional healer.

Mwanahija Mzee massaged the child and after a few treatments, her ability to move slowly improved. The mother has taken this as proof that the illness was caused by spirits.

“Must be a djinn, as Bi Mwanhija said,” Hamad said.

I’m Pete Musto.

Nicky Woo reported this story for the Reuters news service. Pete Musto adapted it for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter Jr. was the editor.

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Words in This Story

massage(s) – n. the action of rubbing or pressing someone's body in a way that helps muscles to relax or reduces pain in muscles and joints

clinicn. a place where people get medical help

umbilical hernian. a condition in which the intestine sticks out through the stomach muscles at the belly button

supernaturaladj. unable to be explained by science or the laws of nature

blessing(s) – n. the act of asking God to care for and protect someone or something

platen. a flat and usually round dish that is used for eating or serving food

fevern. a disease that causes an increase in body temperature

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