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The Witch-Doctor

Updated on March 22, 2012

Native medicine men, weirdly garbed and painted, puzzled early white visitors to tribal societies. Not understanding the strange rituals, but seeing they were often aimed at curing the sick, they assumed that magic was afoot, and dubbed the men witch-doctors. The white man's attitude was fundamentally the same as that of the tribal peoples who, seeing technical devices, aseptic surgery and foreign medicines for the first time, labelled them White Man's magic.

Spectators from overseas might consider the tribal doctor to be a witch, but his own people, who were certainly familiar with the idea of witchcraft, did not regard him as one. On the contrary, one of his chief functions was to protect his villagers from witchcraft.

Apart from this, he combined the offices of physician, chaplain, psychiatrist and private detective. In cases of rivalry between native doctors, one might accuse the other of witchcraft, but this breach of taste was not encouraged by the profession. Since all his functions demand intelligence, plus a gift for inspiring or manipulating his fellow men, it is not surprising that the witch-doctor was usually a person of political importance as well as having other roles.

This combination of functions is not unique to tribal societies. In many more civilized countries, it is quite normal to call in the priest in cases of severe illness. In Europe it was for centuries customary to employ the clergy in the detection of witchcraft or the exorcism of spirits. Both of these were considered to be the cause of physical illness. So the combination of priest-craft with medicine is not a speciality of witch-doctors, or necessarily concerned with the use of magic.

Many of the colorful rituals, the masks and voluminous grass costumes worn by native doctors, have a purpose. They are visual aids to psychiatric treatment. Native medicine on the tribal level is almost without exception combined with psychiatry, a sophisticated approach which 'civilized' practice has only recently adopted. In the confrontation between doctor and patient, the humanity of the patient is never forgotten.

He does not receive the shock to his identity which is usual in Western culture, where he often feels he has been reduced to a mere number or case, or even a veterinary subject. This type of therapeutic set-back is unknown in tribal medicine, where the soul is considered to re quire healing along with the body.

The foremost African psychiatrist, Adeoye Lambo, found use for many of the native techniques when he founded his village center at Abeokuta, Nigeria. Also he found he could employ witch-doctors to work side by side with trained psychiatrists without disharmony.

The visual aids, symbolic incantations, and persuasive statements used by native doctors may be regarded either as sympathetic magic or as mild hypnotic suggestion.

The doctor might say while bathing the patient: 'Your trouble is departing as this river is flowing out to sea.' The metaphor helps to imprint the notion of departure on the patient's mind.

The religious aspect of native psychiatry usually depends upon the local cult, which might be a powerful belief in the intervention of the ancestors - often the recently dead relatives whose power as elders is remembered. A suffering person might feel justified in attributing his pains to possession by the spirit of a deceased aunt who beat him soundly during his childhood. He may be advised to stop the bad behavior for which he suspects he is being punished.

If he maintains his innocence, a donation to placate the tormenting spirit may be prescribed.

Occasionally, if the illness is thought to be caused by the machinations of a living person, the obvious suspect is asked to undergo a trial by ordeal to prove his innocence. In polygamous tribes, the sickness of a child is often blamed on the jealousy of a childless or less-beloved wife.

She might be asked to drink a potion made from some local poison such as the calabar bean. It may then cost her a considerable sum to pay the witch-doctor to mix the potion in a non-poisonous form.

In parts of Ghana, there is a tradition of the use of deep hypnosis by witch-doctors, who may induce a trance in a roomful of patients at a time. Qualified observers maintain that the Ghanaian native doctors are able to cure serious skin-disorders by this spiritual method.

The Indian shaman is said to be able to cure snake-bite by methods very similar to those used by Africans. Many Indian snakes are non-poisonous, but the shock of the bite can kill a suggestible person ignorant of this. Nobody knows whether the shaman just cures the state of shock, or if his persuasion is strong enough to aid the bodily resistance of those actually poisoned.

Sometimes, the pharmaceutical knowledge of witch-doctors has been ahead of civilized medicine. Malaria was successfully treated by South American tribes before old-world doctors, and African Somalis diagnosed the transmission of the disease by the mosquito at least two centuries before Europeans, who laughed at the idea as the invention of ignorant barbarians.

To this day Nigerian tribal women use herbs unknown to modern science to help nursing mothers produce milk. Recently a research team was sent to Ibadan by the Israelis to investigate the unknown drugs in use by native doctors .

One obstacle to the spread of native pharmaceutical knowledge is the natural inclination of the witch-doctor to keep it in the family. Medical information is passed from father to son, or if there is no son, occasionally to a favorite daughter. It is highly likely that medical secrets will die with the practitioner if he is childless for he will seldom sell his practice.

Occasionally, the wife of a native doctor, who has throughout her husband's lifetime been collecting and preparing his herbs (in much the same way as any tribal wife will farm her husband's agricultural land), inherits his practice unofficially. On the basis of her experience she sets up as a herbalist.

In some parts of West Africa, carefully guarded secret remedies are so respected that even European-trained African doctors have been known to send their own children to the local native doctor rather than a modern hospital. They are said to be particularly good with babies suffering from convulsions.

The tribal peoples still remaining in the underdeveloped areas of the world share a lack of faith in natural causes.

Pre-literate people tend to assume that some co-operation between Man and a divine spirit is required to bring about events which more advanced people know will happen naturally if left to themselves.

Thus a witch-doctor is commonly called in to assist in the encouragement of puberty, the return of the seasons or even, as among the American Indians, the daily rising of the sun.

Among the Ibibio of Eastern Nigeria, a witch-doctor will be consulted if an infant is not toddling when his mother thinks he should. An English or American mother may of course do the same, and will be told that this is merely part of our natural variability. The Ibibio mother will go to the witch-doctor for a concoction made from the 'sensitive plant', mimosa, which folds its leaves when touched. To her, a plant which actually moves like a human being would seem the most obvious antidote to her child's inactivity.

Many mothers, in countries where child mortality is very high, lose a number of babies in succession, before they have reached an age when distinctive characters become obvious.

This has led to a belief that the same infant is continually reborn to the mother, and, to torment her, persists in repeatedly dying. The witch-doctor is consulted, and takes steps to put an end to this cruel tendency in the infant. If the child is already dead, he performs rituals upon the corpse which are expected to prevent it returning, so that the mother may next time give birth to a kinder baby. If on the other hand the child is ailing and seems to threaten the mother with imminent departure, it is the duty of the witch-doctor to unearth the charms which the perverse child is thought to have been using. When this is done, the child may recover, possibly because of the happier disposition of its mother, thanks to the witch doctor.

In most tribes, manhood and womanhood are not expected to arrive automatically, but require the assistance of rituals, ceremonies, and often surgical operations, such as circumcision and the cutting of intricate patterns on the body. The witch-doctor officiates, but the surgery is often carried out by specialists.

Death is rarely regarded by tribal peoples as a natural and inevitable event. It is thought to have been brought about either by supernatural intervention or by the plotting of an enemy. Whichever is suspected, the witch-doctor will be called in in several capacities: first as priest, to decide what spirit might have been offended; secondly as private detective, to investigate the possible conspirator; and thirdly as therapist, to administer herbal remedies, massage or heat treatment (in the form of hot coals under the bed). He will also intone the inevitable ritual incantations which act as a comforting psychiatric system to the patient.

Women native doctors are on the whole less commonly found than men. Most show considerable modesty in their medical pretensions, claiming to cure little more than headaches and period pains. They respect Western medicine more than the men, who normally claim to equal the whites in everything except anesthetics and surgery.

Surgery in the tropics has its own problems. Many witch-doctors become highly skilled at extracting the parasitical worms which enter the limbs of people who go barefoot in swampy areas. The prevention of the infection of wounds would seem almost impossible, but many claim success.

A compound-fractured leg, for instance, may be buried beneath the soil, and a fire lit above it. This may appear a heroic measure, but it could be that antibiotic properties in some soils account for the unexpected number of cures.

It is only to be expected that sacrifice should play an important part in native cure, as it has in the early history of all civilized peoples. At some period in the social evolution of most nations and cultures, the custom of human sacrifice, which was used to placate the gods, is dropped in favor of the less painful social experience of killing and dedicating an important animal. The witch-doctor is usually the person who recommends such actions as preventive measures against sickness or conspiracy, to cure barrenness, or to avert some communal disaster.

Many witch-doctors receive their payment in the form of this sacrifice, which may be ritualized, taking such a form as seven pennies, seven sixpences, seven shillings, seven eggs, seven chickens and a goat, all to be taken to a secret place in the forest and perhaps left beneath some ancient and supposedly haunted tree. It is well known that the witch-doctor subsists on these payments, but they are nevertheless regarded as sacraments.

An Eastern Nigerian 'Dibia' or native doctor gives this description of one of his methods:

'There are so many methods of treating people. All depends upon the type of sickness. I shall describe only one and that is "witchcraft". If a person is sick of "witchcraft", I first of all climb on top of a cotton-tree to go to do some sacrifice there so as to bring back the voice of the patient which the witch has changed. When this is done, the patient who remained dumb must talk immediately, then I know he will recover if I start to give treatment.

Second step is for me to take the ash of those expert witches who died, mix with some herbs and give the patient to drink for prevention against devil coming in to worry. Mter, the patient will start to recover, then I present the sacrifice in the big forest at about 12 p.m.

When the patient is well, this is the time I bless the patient. The blessing is always done by digging a grave in my back-yard, lay the patient inside. If a man, I tied a cock on his left foot, and if a woman, I use a female cock. I light seven candles at the head and seven at the foot. Then I conjure all the powerful spirits who died to come and do the rest of the job. The patient is to remain there for seven days, eat there, do everything there till seven days is completed, before I bring him out and shoot a gun before I bid him bye-bye. That ends all about my treatment.'

This is by no means as absurd as its imperfect English would lead us to believe. The therapist begins by diagnosing the ailment as hysterical and therefore curable.

He applies sedation immediately after removing the symptom, rightly regarding this as a mere prelude to cure. He then instigates an elaborate procedure involving full co-operation by the patient's family (the sacrifice) . After this he prevents relapse by organizing a symbolic death and rebirth of the patient, who may then be seen by himself and his family as a totally new person. The suffering endured by the patients undergoing such cures has often been compared to the modern technique of shock treatment.

The wind of change has seriously affected the valuable traditions of developing countries. Along with the advantages of transport and industry have come the problems of urbanization and overcrowding, and the nervous stress of competition in education and employment. Not only have modern methods of treatment and hospitalization been adopted by the big cities springing up in the 'third world', but the nature of the ailments has also changed. Even so, for many reasons city dwellers often still prefer to consult the native doctor rather than approach the austere, perhaps frightening and often expensive hospitals.

The city 'witch-doctor' usually has to change the name of his practice to suit the times or to meet the requirements of the law. Sometimes he will appeal to the half-educated by renaming his establishment 'The Occult Pharmacy' or 'The Spiritual Nursing-Home'. A lady native doctor compromised with mission standards by calling her practice 'The Holy Face', although not saying whose face.

Ailments in the town are often the opposite of those of the village. In the village, the witch-doctor is constantly approached for remedies for infertility, children being a blessing as additional farmhands in a rural community.

But the doctor in the overpopulated township is more often appealed to for abortions by harassed parents whose children must be supported and educated to maturity before they can contribute to the needs of the extended family. And because Africa is so education conscious, he is continually asked for medicines to prevent loss of memory in exams. Another prescription much in demand not so long ago was for evading conscription in Biafra.

The credulity of country-people newly arrived in the big city is proverbial, and one kind of witch-doctor who successfully exploits this is the 'money-doubler'. This confidence trickster poses as the priest of a generous deity (sometimes the spirit of the creek, Mammy-Water) and extorts the savings of the gullible by continually doubling their donations until they have finally deposited their entire possessions with him.

After this he naturally moves swiftly to another base before being detected.

The city witch-doctor is not necessarily a con-man or quack. Often he retains his ancient skills, while working in co operation with the missions and the police. Aided by his immense experience of human nature, he gives invaluable help in crime detection. He may show great ingenuity in persuading a suspect to expose himself without needing to resort to violence in any way.

The modern native doctor compares well with the European-trained practitioners in the treatment of ailments of a hysterical nature, such as impotence or functional loss of speech. Unlike the qualified doctor, he is permitted self-advertisement, and he commonly prints pamphlets declaring his ability to cure every disease known to Man. Though these statements are objectively false, they acquire validity through the faith they inspire in simple people.

Although he does not paint his face and wear a mask or outlandish clothes, the modern witch-doctor relies as much upon his appearance as did his traditional predecessor.

His compelling personality is his stock-in-trade, and his reputation depends on those patients who have recovered.


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      6 years ago

      Well, can say all you want, and admire it from a distance. But I'm thankful I'm not under a life of superstition and fear.


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