Peruse any popular publication that happens to chronicle the work of a development project on the African continent, and chances are that you will see a reference to health care. Many citizens in most African nations bear the burden of particularly poor personal medical circumstances partly due to dire socio-economic circumstances. Malaria, tuberculosis, cholera and various fevers are rife. HIV prevalence rates are astronomical. Child and maternal mortality run at appallingly high numbers. Accordingly, most aid projects are constituted in part by medical and public health interventions, actions that receive a fair amount of publicity and review.

What is less well known beyond Africa’s shores is that the overwhelming majority of the populations of many sub-Saharan nations turn, not infrequently, to another form of health care, that which is somewhat loosely referred to as “traditional African healing.”

Long dismissed by biomedicine as witchcraft, traditional African healing consists of religious, spiritual and supernatural divination to aid in determining the cause of the problem, coupled with the application of inter alia, herbal concoctions, spells, charms and ancestor consultation as remedies.

Even in nations such as South Africa, which possesses a world-class medical system at its upper echelons, biomedical doctors are heavily outnumbered by their traditional healing counterparts despite historical, long-running and draconian attempts to eradicate traditional African healing. Despite its longevity, resilience and popularity, however, traditional African healing has remained an art in the shadows, due, principally, to confusion over its role in the health care practices of individuals.

Biomedicine is partly predicated upon the assumption that recourse to it indicates that a person holds exclusive theories concerning the causation of ill health. That is, if biological phenomenon afflicts them, all other considerations are irrelevant. The response from biomedicine is then both systematic and targeted at the specific problem. This approach has proven both efficacious and efficient, and it has assured biomedicine’s position as the dominant politico-economic method of approaching a person’s health.

However, despite this official dominance, the popular construction of health in Africa still shows recourse to traditional African healing. Yet, in conflict with many of the assumptions made by biomedical doctors, people do not make exclusive choices between these differing conceptions of health. It is becomingly increasingly apparent that many would-be patients construct a fascinating mix of philosophies in their pursuit of a healthy constitution.

Many patients see biomedicine as having the capacity to resolve physical problems — broken bones, heart disease and gout, for instance. Traditional African healers, however, are seen to specialize in the more, shall we say, “metaphysical” aspects of health care — explaining to a person why the misfortune of a broken leg came to pass or applying a herbal paste onto the forehead to promote clearer thinking, for example. Traditional African healers are quite frequently viewed as having powers beyond the strict body-and-mind conception of health that biomedicine defines. Gambling problems, work-related stress and unlucky events in a person’s love life are seen as intimately connected to a person’s health and, as such, are handled with great seriousness by traditional African healers.

There is a darker side too, though. In South Africa, some have taken advantage of the damningly callous attitude of the South African government toward the HIV pandemic in the country by peddling their home remedies as “cures” for HIV, often disparaging biomedical anti-retroviral drugs in the process. Disgracefully, such actions are endorsed by the South African government as a quintessential example of “African solutions for African problems.” The author has, furthermore, personally encountered instances of a few traditional African healers urging HIV-infected men to rape and kill innocent women as a method of “curing” their HIV status.

Yet, despite these misgivings, the majority of traditional African healers are, at worst, harmless except to a person’s wallet and, at best, an invaluable adjunct to biomedicine in allowing a patient to come to terms with a frightening and mystifying world. This latter aspect is something at which biomedicine has, apart from a kindly bedside manner by individual doctors, failed to provide for any of us.

Recently, there has been increasing formal recognition of the genuine healing properties of many of the herbal remedies used by traditional African healers. That such properties exist in plant and animal products exist is un-surprising, given that many biomedical drugs are derived from existing natural products. However, the thorny issues of intellectual property rights, patent law, the ethics of “bio-prospecting” and compensation for the use of indigenous knowledge currently blight efforts to bring traditional remedies to a wider consumer base.

However, international aid agencies have yet to recognize the value of traditional African healing. Doing so would engender both invaluable good will and provide genuine advances in health care programs on the African continent. If for no other reason than increasing the effectiveness of biomedical interventions by making a health care system all-encompassing, this is a neglected area that deserves thought and development over the next few decades.

Michael Eastman is a Fox International Fellow and an international relations student at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.