Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Myths about Africa: Traditional Medicine in Ghana by Kelsey Klippenstien


           As our clinical time in Ghana is coming to a rapid close (only two weeks until we’re graduate nurses – time flies!), we have been visiting different facilities every day as part of our cultural experience. This week we are spending a day at each of the following facilities: the Osu Children’s Home, Princess Marie Louise Children’s Hospital, Korle Bu Teaching Hospital, and the Accra Psychiatric Facility. Last Thursday, we were all very excited – and maybe a little bit nervous – to visit a traditional healer! Now, when you read “traditional healer,” what was the first image that popped into your mind? I will not lie to you. I was expecting one of the makeshift lean-to’s we have seen on the road, claiming to have cures for everything from the common cold to gonorrhea and more, with Rafiki chanting behind it and mixing something in a squash. Pushing it? Maybe. However, after discussion with my peers it became clear that I was not the only one in the group who imagined something along the lines of a witch doctor, or a “quack doctor,” as they are fondly referred to in Ghana.

            Imagine our surprise when we pulled up to a very large, concrete building with a large sign indicating that we had arrived at the Centre for Scientific Research into Plant Medicine (CSRPM); this was definitely not the traditional healer that we were expecting! As it turns out, we were sorely mistaken in what we had imagined our adventure was to be that day, but we learned a lot about traditional healers and medicine. First and foremost, we learned that this practice of traditional healing does not involve crazy antics or quack doctors.

As a developing country with an average life expectancy of less than 60 years, Ghana has the need for “effective, appropriate and efficient means of meeting the health needs of its growing population” (Tabi, Powell & Hodnicki, 2006, p. 52). This approach blends aspects of both traditional and modern medicine due to the lack of medical resources, cultural traditions, and a belief that one must have a deep understanding of their health, life, and being (Tabi et al., 2006). Typically, the choice of an individual regarding choosing traditional or modern healing methods will depend on the illness and its perception by other relatives or friends; however, rural populations will more often seek the help of traditional healers as they are more affordable and accessible in such regions. Tabi et al. (2006) state that, “80% of the population in Africa uses traditional medicine for health care” (p. 53).

There are several different types of traditional healers in Ghana, including: traditional pharmacists, who use herbal medicines made from leaves, roots, or other animal and plant parts; plant drug peddlers, who travel selling herbal medicines; and, “the priest and priestess of deities and gods who use techniques and rituals in healing practices” (Tabi et al., 2006, p. 53), who use divination and rituals to cure what they believe to be spiritual diseases. During our tour of the CSRPM we also learned about herbalistsdoctors who begin in medical school and choose to specialize in and work with traditional medicines. 

In Ghana many families and individuals do continue to use homemade remedies that have been passed on through generations, but that is not the image of traditional healing that the CSRPM projects. The centre has held World Health Organization Collaborating Centre status and continues research and development of herbal medicines with hopes of achieving their vision “to make herbal medicine a natural choice for all” (CSRPM, 2008).

When local individuals believe they have found a remedy from a natural source, it is brought in to the centre where it undergoes testing in a variety of departments: phytochemistry, pharmacology and toxicology, microbiology, production, plant development, and scientific information. After this, the CSRPM sends a report to the Ghanaian Food and Drug Administration (FDA) who then decides whether or not the product is safe for market. The CSRPM also runs an outpatient clinic where patients see the herbalists and can get traditional remedies – even visiting nursing students from Canada can purchase ointments for mysterious bug bites!

It is important for us as nurses, both internationally and at home in Canada, to recognize different cultural traditions and indigenous beliefs of our patients. Especially in Ghana, traditional and modern medicine will always be a large part of the healthcare system and it is important to acknowledge our role in helping patients recognize the positive elements of both (Tabi et al., 2006).

So while the vision and use of traditional medicine may not be as strange and extreme as we may have thought, the origins and current beliefs surrounding these practices are deeply rooted in the Ghanaian culture. Herbal remedies have been used for generations and hopefully, through the work of facilities such as the Centre for Scientific Research into Plant Medicine, they will be considered viable, scientifically accepted, resources for ailments all over the world.


Centre For Scientific Research Into Plant Medicine. (2008). Welcome to CSRPM. Retrieved from

Tabi, M., Powell, M., & Hodnicki, D. (2006). Use of traditional healers and modern medicine in Ghana. International Nursing Review, 53(1), 52-58.

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