Rhodes University Service-Learning Feature Series

Dr Darong’s approach to medical pluralism

By Dana Osborn
Dr Gabriel Darong opening the Round Table Feedback session after his course. Photo by Dana Osborn.
What is Service-Learning?

“We, as researchers and lecturers in higher education, have learnt that students today find themselves in an ever-changing world where knowledge is produced in a variety of contexts and by different people. This requires of students to think critically and act caringly. It requires of students to be open to different forms of knowledge and to be alert to the fact that knowledge is produced in different ways. We find that, for students to respond ethically and academically to learning, they need to engage with others’ thinking with a view to forming their own theories and taking in position themselves.”

Nadine Peterson and Ruksaka Osman in 'An Introduction to Service Learning in South Africa'

Service-Learning is a type of experiential learning which aims to form relationships between higher education institutions and the community. Unlike other forms of experiential learning, this process is not one-sided and is without a hierarchical structure. In the words of the National Service-Learning Clearinghouse, it is “a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.” The goal is an equal input and equal benefit partnership.

The connection between culture and our understanding of health has long interested anthropologists. The concept of Medical Pluralism was first coined in 1976 in a comparative study of Asian medical systems.


As an ideology, Medical Pluralism advocates for accepting a range of different kinds of care. It describes an environment where there is not only availability of different types of health care but also, ideally, an eradication of systemic conflict between different health care systems.

Rhodes University Service-Learning Feature Series

Traditional healers, Gog’Siyanda Ndemka and Bulelanu Mdoko giving feedback at the roundtable. Photo by Dana Osborn

“I will consider growing up in a community where being different, diversity in languages, religion, and cultural practices were common, as the bedrock of my current approaches to research and focus on medical pluralism. Also, being an anthropologist, recognising the beauty and strength that lies in diversity, which acknowledges the cultures of each community and its people, is at the core of how I approach societies. And people.”

– Dr Darong

Dr Gabriel Darong, who is currently teaching Medical Anthropology at Rhodes University and studying towards his Postgraduate Diploma in Higher Education, melded these two concepts perfectly in his third-year anthropology course. He ran a service-learning course to provide integrative learning for the students and service to the community.


Dr Darong’s long-term goal is to develop a medical pluralism forum in Makhanda, where issues of collaborative and holistic health approaches are discussed and programmes to achieve such collaboration are created. The students in this course were encouraged to work with community partners to identify different approaches to specific health issues.


At a roundtable discussion at the end of the course, students were required to give a presentation proposing how the array of health care providers within different systems can achieve collaboration in managing health and illness.

Community partners also shared their thoughts on the project, which was an appreciation of the initiative and forward-looking anticipation for its growth.


Service learning as community engagement vs. as experiential learning
  • As a form of community engagement, service learning combines the academic curriculum of the discipline and the student with service to or in, a community.
  • As a form of experiential learning, service learning asks students to learn through and from their service experiences in working with community members.

- Nadine Peterson and Ruksaka Osman in An Introduction to Service Learning in South Africa


Dr Darong referred to the 2022 course as the pilot phase of a more significant long-term goal. The students were separated into five groups and each paired with a community partner.


The community partners were: Gog’Pam Sandi, a traditional healer; Gog’Siyanda Ndemka and her partner, Bulelani Mdoko, who is also a traditional healer; Dr Trevor Davies and his colleague Dr Jan-Louis Fourie, who are both optometrists; the Jabez AIDS Health Centre; and Sibanye Day Care Centre for children with special needs.


Rhodes University Service-Learning Feature Series

Dr Dominique Santos giving feedback on behalf of the Anthropology Department. Photo by Dana Osborn.

“South Africa is said to have the ‘benefit’ of a pluralistic system of health provision. The three coexisting and most used ways of perceiving, explaining, and treating illness in the country are African Traditional Healing, Allopathic Healing, and Faith/Spiritual Healing. This is commonly the case in most South African communities, including Makhanda.”

– Dr Darong

The academic goals differed from group to group. One group who worked with uGog’Pam Sandi “explored contextual understandings of non-communicable health conditions, specifically eye care and mental health, to understand how the healers care for patients with these conditions”, Dr Darong explained. Another group that worked with uGog’Siyanda Ndemka and her partner explored communicable diseases, specifically HIV/AIDS and COVID-19.


The group that worked with Dr Trevor Davies and his partner explored how they consider the local community in planning and providing optometry services. The group who worked with Jabez AIDS Health Centre explored how they provide HIV support to community members. 


The students working with Sibanye learned about how the carers attend to children with disabilities.


Each group performed a service to their community partner, from helping with the processing of herbs to playing with children, cooking, cleaning and identifying ways in which they can contribute to the service offered by their community partner.


Dr Darong explained that the most considerable success was the coming together of different partners for the roundtable, which was organised to wrap up this project phase. Dr Darong said, “The partners who were able to attend all shared their enthusiasm about the project and the possibilities that lie ahead, of having a space where they can engage with other partners and the University at the same time. The roundtable was the peak of the service-learning module, as all students could share their experiences with all the partners, staff members and postgraduate students from the Anthropology Department.”


He explained that “the module and research activities conducted through it will thus create a platform where proponents and practitioners of the multiple health approaches existing in the community can engage in discussions on how they can, together, provide health services that meet the needs of the community, in its plural form.”


All parties expressed excitement for the future of this project, but none more than Dr Darong, who stated, “The commitment shown by the 3rd year Anthropology students who met with me four days each week, the willingness of community partners who welcomed us wholeheartedly, and the support of my department and funding from the Rhodes University Community Engagement Division have been immensely instrumental in the success of this initiative. I look forward to expanding the partnership and building on the lessons learned from this pilot phase.”