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Africans have a way of understanding the world, which is not seen; for instance, they have a particular way of interacting with the supernatural world of spirits and believe in spiritual powers that influence different aspects of life, such as the way people interact with diseases. Despite the concept of Western medicine that was introduced to Africans during the colonial period, many communities in Africa and diaspora still believe in the supernatural powers and spiritual world having an influence on their health; hence, the practice of traditional healing.
This concept can be used to understand the religion of African people in terms of spiritual practices during the care process for a sick person. Paris stated that African spirituality is not disembodied; instead, it is connected with the dynamic movement of life (22). This implies that spirits, which are forces of life, influence different aspects of existence. The healing process in Africa is anchored in the belief in sacred cosmos, which is created and preserved by a supreme deity. Therefore, the following paper is an examination of African traditional healing with the main focus on some cultural practices in Ghana.
Care and Healing Practice in Ghana
In many parts of Ghana, whenever a sick person is presented to traditional healers, they first consult the spiritual world in order to identify what caused the disease. The divination process establishes whether the sick person could have violated community orders or the existence of a bad spell from evil people. A healing and care process follows the determination of the cause of the disease. The healing process is understood as holistic; Paris noted that health consists of components of spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental states (22). Therefore, healers provide the treatment of spiritual, psychological, and social factors. Ghanaian cultural healers do not separate these factors; instead, they address them as one major perspective.
The elaborate care process entails protection and curative undertakings. The spiritual protection is carried out as the initial action if the healer believes that attacks by evil spirits caused the sickness. Protection, on the other hand, involves the use of various rites to drive away evil powers. In some cases, based on the culture, sacrifices are incorporated as part of the care. During the healing process, the Ewes community can slaughter or burry animals alive, depending on the type of illness and its causes. In addition, the sick person is cleansed by the blood of a specially slaughtered animal. The process entails pouring blood on foot and head of the sick as a purification measure. Prayers that are carried out during the pouring of libation also accompany the healing process; the liquid poured can be palm wine, coconut water, and, in some cultures, milk. Among the Akan community of Ghana, the pouring of libation involves invocation and supplication.
Invocation entails calling the names of ancestors and their spirits in order to welcome them in the community; this is then followed by supplication in which healers ask the ancestors to act on their behalf to heal the sick person. Finally, they thank the ancestors for listening to their cries; next, they leave with a strong belief that they will heal the sick and protect the community. Herbs are prescribed to treat the physical body and can be accompanied by counseling on the ways to stay healthy and in line with the requirements of the spirits. It is worth noting that traditional healers in many parts of Africa are revered and hold powerful positions in society. They play the roles of a priest, counselor, physician, and psychiatrist. These roles point out to the established system that ensured that the sick were given holistic care.
In addition to the care described above, healers and diviners can recommend exorcism for an individual, family, or community. This is normally the case if the cause of the disease is attributed to evil spirits. The diviners and healers in charge of this care process have spiritual powers and religious authority. For the Akan community, this process requires a lot of singing, dancing, drumming, and spraying some powder to the sky until the possessed person is free. Among the Akan people, this care process of exorcism is also performed for the mentally challenged. This is normally based on the belief that demons cause mental illnesses and, unless the exorcism ceremony is performed, the sick cannot be cured of the mental problem.
The examples of spiritual healing in Ewe and Akan communities in Ghana are just manifestations that spirituality is connected to physical health. For instance, spirituality has been found to be a critical factor in coping with suffering as it is associated with social support from the community. As noted by Paris, the healing process encompasses many dimensions of the human being; it includes spiritual healing, which forms the realm of the physical body and the soul’s wellness (26). In the African context, spiritual care providers had a deep sense of godliness and love for the sick, which enabled them to carry out their holistic healing process.
Religion permeates different dimensions of African life in spite of divergent cultural practices that are related to tribal cultures. Good health is not just about physiological body functions; it encompasses the spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical well-being, and it has roots in the entire community and its relationship with the spirits. According to White, there is a common belief that if the ancestors are healthy, they will protect the community by ensuring that there are no diseases and bad spells from malicious people (2). Therefore, in times of diseases and calamities, a libation is given to ancestors to appease them and seek protection. Therefore, African traditional medicine is characterized by constant interaction between the need of spiritual and physical wellness.
The case examples from Ghana present a care process for the sick that is very much focused on spirituality. This shows the centrality of religion in the healing of the sick just as it is in Christianity. This has an overall effect of ensuring that the treatment has protective, curative, and preventive elements. The examples show that the healing process is natural or ritual, depending on what caused the illness.
White noted that there is an extensive diagnosis procedure in which the patient is interviewed to establish the cause of disease, or through divination, process to establish whether there are spiritual concerns that should be addressed (3). Protection entails the use of charms and other rituals that ensure that the disease-causing elements do not afflict the person or the community. On the other hand, preventive measures involve advice about things that should be avoided and a prescribed way of life to shun wronging the spirits such as sticking to community taboos while the curative aspect entails the act of exorcism or the use of herbs, and the pouring of libation to appease the ancestors.
In Africa, spiritual care is given utmost importance, and it is believed to make a difference in a community, family, and the sick. This implies that the healing process for the sick is carried out in a holistic manner in which the sick person is cared for within the communities, families, and sometimes in the homes of traditional healers. This process is organized in a way that brings restoration to the entire people and reconciles them with the universe, which is a symbol of the Supreme God in the traditional African religion. However, it is important to note that there is diversity in how they care for the sick is implemented in different sub-cultures in Africa, even though the concept of holistic care and the social angle is a common element.
The care for the sick in Africa is provided based on the principle of belonging to one another, oneself, the society, God, and the ancestors. The ancestors are believed to be mediators between the living and the God, i.e., they are benevolent to the communities and families. This expounds on the sense of being close to one another and the continuity in life which is the core essence of what constitutes life as per many cultures and sub-cultures in Africa. For example, in many African communities, pregnancy is celebrated and the birth of a child is considered a significant event in the community. It is a process rather than a date. The concept of oneness is usually found in many African societies and has been described as ‘utu’, a Swahili word implying living with one another to signify the reality of humanity.
It is through oneness that the care and healing of the sick are derived based on the understanding of the social connection of an individual to the entire community. The practice can be traced to the African American community and other people exposed to African care process for the sick. For example, Mitchem noted that the narratives of slaves have terms such as ‘hoodoo’ and ‘conjure’ (19). The two terms have a spiritual connotation in which an individual is seen as being grounded in the community. It is this grounding that there is a relationship between the self, humans, and the universe which is considered integral in the healing process. The ‘hoodoo’ among African Americans revolved around the use of herbs and roots to heal and protect based on the interconnectedness of everything in life.
The healing process in Africa was informed by the belief that there are different categories of diseases, and hence, the care process should respond to the specific needs if a person is to be restored to the normal state. This denotes that in the case of a disease, an individual and the concerned people start with the examination or analysis of what really caused the disease. The identification of the illness is then followed by the use of indigenous drugs provided by the medicine men and women.
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In contemporary times, the care process includes combining the modern scientific and indigenous processes. For example, it is common for many African communities to consult with professional doctors when dealing with the physical healing, while spiritual healers are involved in the healing of the soul, and any other intervention required in case the cause of the disease is connected to the spirits. The integration of the two takes place mainly because many governments in Africa have not legalized the traditional care process for the sick. They insist on the modern scientific method when it comes to the physical healing of the body.
The care for the sick is implemented based on the origin of disease. In relation to the cases of Ghana, traditional healers are of the opinion that failure to follow the requirements of the ancestors can result in sickness. For instance, disobeying taboos can be a cause of sicknesses. It is important to note that taboos form a critical part of the culture of many tribes in Africa. In the African religion, taboos normally exist to ensure that the moral structures are maintained and that the universe is not altered for the betterment of humanity.
Therefore, the ancestors, who are considered as the police of the community, punish the wrongdoer either individually or as a community. The punishment is mainly in the form of diseases. Just as any other healing and care process for the sick, treatment of the root cause is imperative for Africans. As a result, there are special divine practices which are carried out to establish the cause of the disease. Through evoking of the spirits, healers are able to ascertain whether there was any wrongdoing that led to the disease. The diviners use spiritual powers to communicate with deities. According to White, the powers of divination form the first step in the care process for the sick (5).
An African medicine man or herbalist uses herbs to treat the prevailing disease and, at the same time, invokes spirits to aid in the healing process. The spirituality of people who perform the rites is based on their efficacious interactions with the unseen world (Murphy 30). An individual’s health is considered as a collective problem, i.e., it affects the entire community. As outlined in the healing practice of some of the Ghanaian tribes, the first line of the treatment process for the sick in the traditional African care starts with the diagnosis in which the healer carefully examines the person and asks questions about the instances that could have triggered the disease. This is then followed by divination in which mystical cause for the sickness is sought.
Paris noted that Africa has many tribal cultures and their moral values vary considerably; however, there are basic principles that show common features in the cosmological and spiritual understanding (25). For instance, the context of care as practiced in different cultures in Ghana shows a great focus on spirituality aspect which entails animating integrative powers in order to draw meaning in the healing process. The spirituality accorded in the care process depicts how it is synonymous with souls of people. From the care process, it is evident that African people are concerned with the causes of diseases and provide the holistic healing. It is apparent that the treatment process is mainly centered on the use of natural elements. According to Mitchem, healers make use of natural elements to draw power that is used to achieve the desired result; this practice symbolizes the African epistemologies such as the veneration of the ancestors (18).
Also, the practice relates to the African American folk healing in which care not only relies on the physical dimension of an individual but also encompasses spiritual aspects. The spiritual healing can be related to some biblical phrases which stipulate that people should be healed from sins. In a similar way, the care process for the sick affirms that ancestral spirits interact with the living (Mitchen 26). Mitchen stated that the veneration of ancestors puts into perspective that life continues after death and the dead person’s soul continues to live in the present world (26).
As a result, the soul is invoked and asked to protect the sick and community, and not to allow any calamity. The healing and care processes for the sick are a snapshot of the mystical worship and celebrations in many African cultures across the globe. Despite Western religions, such as Christianity, advocating for a Supreme Being, Lartey pointed out that for many African practices there is no conflict in adoring the aspects of one Supreme Being because polytheism or monotheism are just standpoints of a common thing (106).
The recognition and the veneration of the spirit is a central feature of African religious practices. They are carried out in different aspects of life. For example, during the general worship sacrifices may be offered to the dead. Similarly, they can be offered during healing or exorcism practices. In the course of offering sacrifices, the dead people who served the community well are recognized as the police of the community. The souls of the dead form the spiritual world that is manifested to the living. Believers rely on their souls to bring harmony to communities (112).
The nature of the holistic healing relates to African morality that focuses on the good of the community because healing does not center on the sick only (Magesa 80). That is why spirits are invoked to take care of the whole family or community. In addition, ancestors act as arbiters of the community’s morality; thus, they can bring punishment to those who disobey because they act as the link between the past and the present (Lartey 113). To emphasize, the focus on spirituality as the realm of the care process as practiced in traditional African society can be related to Christian beliefs in which the healer seeks spiritual and psychological fulfillment. The main focus of religions is the need to reintegrate a sick person into the community.
In describing the pragmatism and the efficacy related to the African folk healing, Mitchem notes, “They [cures] are part of a system that is holistic so that the healthy individual is seen as possessing an integrated balance of body, mind, and spirit; the system also continues to exist because, unlike biomedicine, it is not restricted to dealing with matters of health and illness” (71). It is through this understanding that the practices of African American folk healing in the 20th can be understood. This is based on the social aspect in which care is not restricted to institutions but viewed as something in which the entire community should participate in order to promote the humanity aspect.
The social concept in the care process implies that there is a symbiotic relationship which exists between a person and the community. This does not devalue the individuality; instead, it means that Africans value a personality to the extent that the community is involved in the matters that concern an individual. It points to the collectivism rather than individualism that characterizes the Western society (Paris 111). Therefore, the healing process includes an individual and corporate body. This is based on the fact that the highest moral good in the African context is ensuring the common good. Therefore, the care for a sick person should include interrogating matters that may affect the entire community, a fact which is well understood by healers. Hence, the assertion by Paris, “A holistic approach, which understands the whole person, not just isolated symptoms in line with black cultural conceptualizations of wellness” (72). The statement is in reference to the societal involvement in the taking care of the sick person.
From this discussion about the healing process and the position of the spirits or gods, it can be deduced that African communities accord great significance to their spirituality. Therefore, the treatment process includes aspects of spiritual, physical, and mental well-being. It results in the concept of holistic care in which the sick person, the community, and healers have faith that ancestors’ spirits will cure them. This social aspect provides a support system that encourages the sick and lessens their suffering.
Lartey, Emmanuel. Postcolonializing God: An African Practical Theology. SCM Press, 2013.
Magesa, Laurenti. African Religion: The Moral Traditions of Abundant Life. Orbis Books, 1997.
Mitchem, Stephanie. African American Folk Healing. New York University Press, 2007.
Murphy, Joseph. Working the Spirit: Ceremonies of the African Diaspora. Beacon Press, 1994.
Paris, Peter. The Spirituality of African Peoples: The Search for a Common Moral Discourse. Fortress Press, 1995.
White, Peter. “The Concept of Diseases and Health Care in African Traditional Religion in Ghana.” HTS Theological Studies, vol. 71, no. 3, 2015, pp. 1-7.