The need for traditional medicine in Africa

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Dr Rebecca Marsland, Senior Social Anthropology Lecturer at Edinburgh University in the United Kingdom,
Dr Rebecca Marsland, Senior Social Anthropology Lecturer at Edinburgh University in the United Kingdom,

By Lindeka Namba, School of Journalism and Media Studies Student

On 11 June, the Rhodes University African Studies Centre hosted an online colloquium that focused on COVID-19 drug research & development and the role of traditional medicine in Africa. The webinar saw a total of 64 registered delegates and five panellists in attendance.

Among several lessons learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa is the urgency and necessity of improved health infrastructure to cater for emergencies now and in the near future. Furthermore, the marginalisation faced by African states in the COVID-19 vaccine procurement and distribution framework (COVAX) shows that solutions to enormous health challenges lie in homegrown initiatives. Panelists did assess the resilience of herbal medicines and their resilience in the new global health framework, and debated the possibilities of alternative pathways of authenticating African herbs and furthering research in this regard.

Dr Adedamola Adetiba from the Rhodes University African Studies Centre, began by welcoming all attendants before handing over to Professor Enocent Msindo, the Director of the Rhodes University African Studies Centre and Dean of the Faculty of Humanities Faculty. In his opening remarks, Prof Msindo acknowledged all the esteemed speakers and noted that the colloquium was a follow-up to an earlier two-day event that the Centre had hosted in April of 2021. "Today’s event is to find out how the use of indigenous medicine could potentially impact on Afro-medical futures,” he said.

The first session featured Senior Social Anthropology Lecturer at Edinburgh University in the United Kingdom, Dr Rebecca Marsland. Dr Marsland spoke about the social and political place of traditional and herbal medicine in our societies. She also touched on the symbolic efficacy of herbal medicine and the role of the state in the control or promotion of the same.

Dr Marsland began by discussing a case study concerning COVID-19 and traditional medicine in Tanzania, where she conducted her studies. She went into more detail about the late President John Magufuli’s response to COVID-19 and his advocacy for traditional medicine. Next, using the analogy of how HIV/AIDS affected Tanzania, she delved into the history of herbal medicine practices in the nation by drawing parallels to how recent events unfolded similar to those of the past. She examined the difficult history of how the state had tried to silence traditional medical practices over the centuries by disciplining healers using state prosecution laws.

Further, Dr Marsland elaborated on what traditional medicine is and the people who use it based on her research in Tanzania. The widespread availability of other kinds of medicine shows biomedicine does not meet everybody's needs, either because people do not have access to it or because it does not have the appropriate expertise to address certain conditions. "In a lot of African countries, traditional medicine is pluralistic, and the health care system is pluralistic," she said. "This means that different medical traditions co-exist and they are based on different world views," she added.

She concluded by saying that there seems to be an irony in the turn towards traditional medicine as a critique of the global imperial north and its failure to distribute essential pharmaceuticals. The traditional medicine that is being pushed forward now is the kind that robs indigenous knowledge owners of the acknowledgment they rightly deserve.

The full webinar video can be accessed here.