witch doctor

views updated Jun 08 2018

witch doctor In the genre of African colonial literature, the ‘witch doctor’ — Gagool in Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, for example — serves as an allegory for the dark, sinister, forces of barbarism.

This is a gross distortion of the actual situation in Africa; where folk healers are highly respected, are linked to the benevolent ancestors, and work to ensure the well-being of their clients. In fact, the term ‘witch doctor’ is a misnomer. These functionaries neither doctor witches nor practice witchcraft, though they may occasionally act as witch-finders who smell out the secret workers of death and destruction. The term ‘folk healer’ is thus more appropriate.

In many parts of Africa the practice of folk healing incorporates two roles — that of the diviner and that of the herbalist.


Diviners are experts in diagnosis who are called to the profession by the ancestors. Their calling is made manifest by the onset of persistent symptoms, which only yield once she or he undergoes formal initiation. To do so the person becomes an apprentice of an established diviner, and learns to trance so that the ancestors can speak through her or him. Though divination processes are diverse, set routines are followed. The diviner's body can become a vehicle for communication through spirit possession. Otherwise, some type of device is employed, from a simple sliding object to the myriad of symbolic items in a diviner's basket. A common method involves using divination dice. When thrown to the ground their combinations reveal specific meaning. Divinatory consultations occur in times of crisis, when there is insufficient practical information available to cope with life's hazards. In these situations diviners enable people to acquire otherwise inaccessible information by generating a shift to a contrary, paranormal, mode of cognition. Because the language of divination is cryptic, all revelations are translated and discussed. During this dialogue between the diviner and client, known facts are scrutinized in the light of a different perspective and old elements are reorganized into new arrangements. Diviners indicate the cause of misfortune, locate stolen property, identify witches, and recommend specific therapies. Sensitivity to the dynamics of personal relationships greatly enhances a diviner's success. While people are often sceptical of individual practitioners, most believe that the revelations of some diviners are true. People frequently consult more than one diviner, especially in cases of suspected witchcraft.


Herbalists undergo a more extensive apprenticeship, and have a vast knowledge of flora and fauna. Early in the twentieth century Shona healers used five hundred different medicinal plants, and also parts of animals, birds, insects, snakes, and fish. Herbalists deal with a wide range of medical, psychological, and social problems. Many therapies are based on practical knowledge, gained through experimentation. Southern African herbalists apply milk of the euphorbia to draw out deep-lying thorns and use wooden splints for broken limbs. They remove ritual pollution through blood-letting, enemas, and emetics. Other therapies follow the logic of symbolic association. For example, parts of scorpions are used to heal scorpion stings, and a tree with lumps on its trunk to treat patients with mumps. Medicines not only cure disorders of the body, but also protect babies from illness, ensure good luck, and help workers find employment. Folk healers among the Ndembu of Zambia aim to heal ruptured social relationships. In therapeutic rituals patients become the centre of social concern, kin and neighbours are encouraged to confess their feelings of ill-will, and events are related to wider cosmological frameworks. Zimbabwean healers appease the spirits of a murdered man by negotiating for the family of the slayer to pay a fine of cattle, or a young woman, in compensation for his death.

Studies show very high levels of patient satisfaction with treatment outcomes of folk healers, but have produced inconclusive results on the biomedical efficacy of folk healing. It is suggested that certain medicinal substances have positive pharmacological reactions. The bitter ithethe root, used by Zulu healers, is listed in the British Pharmacopoeia as an expectorant for chronic chest ailments. Researchers have found that Kenyan wanganga successfully cure 33% of patients who suffer from barrenness. This is seen as due to sound advice about sexual intercourse, the use of herbs which may relax the tubal musculature, and the performance of rituals that reduce stress which serves as an impediment to conception. On the other hand, purgatives used in folk healing have been shown to have deleterious side-effects. Existing research on this topic is clearly inadequate. It has proved difficult to extrapolate the findings of laboratory research to actual work on patients; longitudinal observation studies are based on too small sample sizes; and few studies have used randomized, blinded, controlled trails.

Folk healers continue to play a vital role in contemporary Africa, especially in societies undergoing rapid transition. Greater access to biomedicine has not undermined folk healing, since Africans view different types of healers as complementary resources. Illness may initially be explained in non-mystical terms, but if treatment fails, the diagnosis may change to witchcraft or to the ancestors, and recourse can be made successively to a biomedical doctor, diviner, and herbalist. According to one estimate there were some 10 000 isangoma in the South African city of Johannesburg in 1985, who were consulted at least occasionally by 85% of all black households. Some postcolonial states have legally recognized folk healers. In Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healer's Association (ZINATHA) supervises the practice of folk healing. ZINATHA has 312 branches, and some 24 000 registered ‘traditional medical practitioners’ and ‘spirit mediums’. The Association cooperates with the Health Ministry, organizes workshops on primary health care and AIDS, cultivates medicinal plants, and runs schools for the study of traditional medicine. Similarly, the Rwandan state has pursued a policy of revalorizing ‘traditional medicine’ and has funded Clinics of Popular Medicine where patients consult folk healers of various specialities. In eastern Cameroon state courts have convicted witches, who are perceived as a threat to development, on the basis of testimony provided by diviners.

I. Niehaus


Chavunduka, G. L. (1994). Traditional medicine in modern Zimbabwe. University of Zimbabwe Publications, Harare.

See also healing; herbal medicine; shamans.

witch doctor

views updated May 23 2018

witch doc·tor • n. (among tribal peoples) a magician credited with powers of healing, divination, and protection against the magic of others.

witch doctor

views updated Jun 08 2018

witch doctor See shaman

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