Traditional healers age: An earnest request to preserve traditional medicine heritage

By Elias Hakizimana

One would wonder how Rwandans used to treat and heal patients before the arrival of colonial era, back to the 19th century. They would used curative herbs, and other traditional treatment solutions. And accounts go around that, even when a woman was about to give birth, but the natural delivery failed, the traditional midwives would cut or dissect her belly — as cesarean section —, remove the child, and use banana sap stains to sterilise the cuts against infections.

As Rwandans have been characterised by a narrative culture and tradition versus written or recorded one, traditional therapy has been handed down from generations to generations through the word of mouth.

And, as a result, a part of the knowledge or skills in this remedy has been at risk of disappearance because oral tradition is prone to forgetfulness.

What complicates the situation is that, the image of traditional medicine among Africans was tarnished by colonialism it replaced it with conventional (modern) medicine.

Now, most of the traditional healers — those who clung to the healing roots of their ancestors —, are old, at their 70s, and above.

Moreover, the healing medicinal plants and herbs are declining or endangered owing to socioeconomic reasons such as agriculture for food, and settlement which remives the vegetation cover.

So, what is the future of traditional medicine?

This is one of the pressing issues that were raised by traditional healers and medical experts in conventional medicine in Rwanda during the 15th African Traditional Medicine Day, held on August 31, 2017, at Petit Stade in Kigali.

They contended that local traditional healers should preserve medicinal plants and make their profession sustainable by teaching their children through written lessons, how work to be able to heal people in the future when parents die.

(L-R), Daniel Gafaranga, Beatrice Cyiza from REMA, Dr Theophille Dushime from MoH, Dr Raymond Muganga from UR and Dr Kabera Justin from NIRDA following discussions on African Traditional Medicine Day, August 31, 2017, in Kigali (Elias Hakizimana).

The day focused on efforts to restore some medicinal plants which are endangered, and to recognize traditional medicine in health programmes.

According to AGA Rwanda Network, an association of traditional healers in the country, the association carried out a research which revealed that over 700 medicinal plant species are in danger of decline.

To this end, AGA Rwanda Network is seeking Rwf416 million to implement a project aimed to restore those endangered medicinal plants in the country.

Dr Raymond Muganga, pharmacy lecturer at University of Rwanda’s department of medicine and pharmacy and representative of National Pharmacy Council, speaking during African Medicine Day, Kigali on August 31, 2017 (Elias Hakizimana)

Dr Raymond Muganga, pharmacy lecturer at University of Rwanda’s department of medicine and pharmacy — who is also representative of National Pharmacy Council said that traditional healers should impart knowledge on medicinal plants, and various healing techniques to their children to uphold healthcare provision in the future.

“Transmit this kind of healing technics to your children and teach them all kinds of medicinal plants, show them but also tell them to write down because oral skills are not enough; there is also need for written ones,” said Muganga.

He gave them an example of his grandfather who was a traditional healer and died without showing the healing secrets to any of his children, which unfortunatel, resuled in lack remedy when one of hisvfamily members later suffered from an illness which the deceased grandfather used to heal.

“Some people confused the illness of the child with skin cancer but we later realised that, it was the same our grandfather used to heal, but, unfortunately, none of us was aware of his healing technics, neither oral nor written,” Muganga noted.

He highlighted that over 60 percent of the budget in health is allocated to medicines and advised traditional healers to look for a solution to the decline of medicinal plants.

“But we can get a solution by seeking all information from traditional healers and try to re-plant such herbs which are endangered, because when the medicine disappear, it is hard to regain it and you know it is any important natural resource for our health,” Muganda added.

According to Dr Théophile Dushime , the Director General of Clinical and Public Health Services at the Ministry of Health (MoH), the ministry will conduct a research on medicinal plants to improve the work of traditional healers and control the claims of some people that they qualify to heal many diseases.


Dr Théophille Dushime in charge of general clinical services in the Ministry of Health clarifying that traditional healing is much recognized by the ministry (Elias Hakizimana)

“We will follow up on such medicines to know how they work and then to see the contribution of traditional medicine in health. We can also stop importing medicines after we have realized that such local medicines have efficacy to heal Rwandans,” Dushime said.

He added that an institute of traditional healers will be set up after improving their woks and its major targets will be to follow on their discipline and ensure their performance. The institute will also able to give punishments for offenders.

For plants which are endangered, a joint collaboration between the ministry of health with other institutions such as Rwanda Environmental Management Authority (REMA), and researchers will identify all medicinal plants countrywide to preserve them and plant new ones that will be used in manufacturing made in Rwanda medicines.

Daniel Gafaranga, the president of AGA Rwanda Network said that traditional healing heritage should be preserved, noting that more efforts should be put in transferring skills in this therapy from parents (elders) to children.

Daniel Gafaranga, the president of AGA Rwanda Net Work of traditional healers addressing journalists on August 31, 2017 during the celebration of the 15 African Traditional Medicine Day (Elias Hakizimana)

“Traditional healing is heritage you inherit from parents, but we have concluded that everyone must write down what he/ knows when bequeathing healing inheritan to children. You must, for example, identify the plant and, if it cures cancer, you say it and record it somewhere so that it will never be forgotten.” Gafaranga said.

Louis Ndayisaba, a traditional healer in Gitega Sector of Nyarugenge District said they are happy as traditional healers are recognized by the government.

“We are so happy that we are no longer called sorcerers as before people used to call us. We appreciate trainings and advice they give us to improve our work,” Ndayisaba noted.

Traditional healers from 30 districts countrywide following discussions and advice during the celebration of 15th African Traditional Medicine Day, on August 31, 2017 (Elias Hakizimana)

AGA Rwanda network has over 3,000 accredited healers, while overall, there are about 14,000 traditional healers countrywide.

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Elias Hakizimana

Elias Hakizimana, CEO&Founder of The Inspirer Ltd,(www.rwandainspirer.com) is a professional Rwandan Journalist with Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism and Communication, received from University of Rwanda’s College of Arts and Social Sciences (CASS) in 2014. He served various media houses in Rwanda including Rwanda Broadcasting Agency (RBA) in 2013 and became passionate with English Online and Print Media Publications where he exercised his talent as a Freelance News Reporter for The New Times, The Independent, The Rwanda Focus, Panorama and more before he became a Self-Entrepreneur as the CEO and Founder of The Inspirer Limited in early 2017.

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