Swaziland's traditional healers

A deteriorating health system is turning more people towards herbal medicine in Swaziland.


    The traditional healer asked me if I would like a consultation free of charge. I hesitated, not sure what I was about to get myself into.

    She told me to take my shoes off as a sign of respect to the ancestors. I sat down.

    She was wearing red and wine. Her 'healing' room was full of bottles with medicines and herbs.

    She promised to tell me my problems and how best I could deal with them – by talking to her ancestors and giving me herbal medicines to take.

    I am African and I grew up knowing that in many cultures consulting traditional healers happens a lot.

    These men and women say they can heal anything from minor ailments to more serious illnesses by consulting the ancestors and using herbal medicines. They even boast about chasing away evil spirits and getting rid of bad luck.

    In Swaziland some traditional healers work closely with the health department.

    The politics

    I am on assignment in Swaziland.

    The Kingdom of Swaziland is ruled by King Mswati the Third, Africa's last absolute monarch. Forbes magazine says he's worth $200m. But his country is running out of cash.

    About 70 per cent of his people live on less than two dollars a day.

    The King’s officials blame the financial crisis for drop in trade with the Southern African Customs Union – a regional trade body. It also blames the global financial crisis. They say the Kingdom can't afford wage increases.

    But civil servants don't believe them.

    Teachers have been on strike for five weeks. Nurses and other government employees have joined in. They want a 4.5 per cent wage increase. But government officials have ordered them to return to work by Monday.

    Deja Vu all over again

    The Swaziland reminds me a bit of Zimbabwe – back in 2008/2009 during the political crisis. 

    Whenever people plan to demonstrate the police are out in full force on the streets. It's difficult to get media accreditation, so international journalists hardly report from here.

    People are afraid to talk openly fearing the royal family.

    On Monday we will know what workers plan to do.

    Are they going to return to work or continue boycotting until government officials give in to their demands?

    Traditional clinics can't treat everything

    We sneaked into the Mbabane general hospital and saw a few nurses but they were not working. Hundreds of patients were waiting to be seen but no one helped. Medicine cabinets were running out of drugs.

    "That's why more and more people are coming to traditional clinics," says Busisiwe Makhabane from the Traditional Healer's Association.

    "People aren't getting help from clinics and hospitals. Even those that don't believe in what I can do are coming because they are desperate. I help when I can, but sometimes I can't," Makhabane said.

    Consulting traditional healers is common in many parts of Africa. It's been done for generations. In Swaziland some healers work closely with the health department – sometimes successfully fusing traditional African knowledge with Western medicines.

    But Makhabane admitted she can't treat everything. People with HIV/AIDS come asking for ARVS but she doesn't have any. Her traditional herbs can't help with that.

    So, while traditional clinics provide some kind of assistance for the sick, hospitals need to be functioning at full capacity in order to save lives.

    Oh, and by the way I didn't get a consultation in the end. I politely declined. Perhaps a part of me was afraid of what she'd say.



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