He was a handsome Shona man, in traditional dress, and he spoke English fluently with a refined British accent. His dark eyes could not hide his amusement at finding a middle-aged white female American in his place of business: A traditional healer’s hut, just outside of Harare, Zimbabwe. He was the traditional healer, and I had cajoled a Shona colleague into taking me to visit him because I was–as usual–almost terminally curious–this time, about exactly how the widely-known and respected traditionalist had so much success in his practice of the art of healing. I had just explained this to him, and asked if I might have a consultation.
“Certainly, you may” he began, “but you must understand that I cannot work with you the same way that I work with my own people, because you would neither understand nor believe everything that I tell you. I am willing to help you and talk to you as the white American person that you are, if you desire, and come as close as possible in that way to giving you the experience of the traditional healer that you seek.”
Now I was really interested. The Healer (I was beginning to think of him in capital letters, now) was obviously well educated, extremely intelligent, and willing to provide me with at least a glimpse into the world of his Shona ancestry. Yes, I wanted to see and hear what he had in mind.
He invited me to sit on some rugs on the floor in front of him. We were surrounded by the anticipated tools of his trade that he would routinely use to divine the causes and cures of the diseases of his own people. He did not use them with me. Instead, he began by detailing a number of physical problems that I had: I had suffered back pain for a long time, he told me. OK, I thought, that is good observation–I moved and walked like a person with back problems. Then he discussed the problems that I have with my right foot. He was continuing to be very observant– the scar from the surgery to correct a trimalleolar fracture three years previously was now very, very faint.
He progressed in this vein for a short period of time, then, smiling mischievously, he informed me that my (long deceased) maternal grandfather was providing him with information about my spirit that needed to be addressed. I was suitably impressed with facts from my personal history that he then presented, but I was also aware that fortune tellers in my own country are often able to elicit and/or supply the same kinds of information with equally uncanny accuracy.
At the end, though, he began to advise me about how to correct some actual imbalances in my life. Here, I was able to completely appreciate traditional medicine’s understanding of the reciprocal relationships between the health of the individual and the health of the family, and/or the community. Additionally, his advice included definitive steps to renew a relationship with the earth itself, and a new understanding of the value of doing that. When I finally took my leave from him, I felt renewed and refreshed, yet he had done nothing but talk to me, reflecting back to me how he saw my life and how I could optimize my physical and spiritual health. (Note for Epilogue: It worked.)
Later that week, while on the plane returning to my home in South Africa, I reflected on questions of how this healer had both exemplified the traditional qualities of the Healer ever since ancient times, and used very modern understandings of the potential needs of someone from a culture not his own. I compared my visit with him to my experiences both working with and professionally consulting physicians in my own home country of the USA. When did the most effective Western healers I knew utilize similar tools to those of this Healer who had the wisdom and knowledge from ancient times, combined with very modern knowledge and skills?
- Acknowledging my cultural roots, the African healer immediately and consistently maintained eye contact with me. This was all the more useful to me, because for months I had struggled to properly show the respect of downcast eyes demanded of many southern African peoples in the presence of a superior; in this instance, his being both male and having the status of Healer, I should have maintained this respectful position. If you who are of my culture believe that this is easy, you should try it sometime! I had learned that I must ignore my compulsion to earnestly seek eye contact with male African leadership (in order to allow my honesty and concern to be evident). In those situations, it would have proven the exact opposite and offended the one whose support and trust I sought. This Healer, however, set aside his own pride and dignity to allow me to be myself and to gain the most from our visit. Western physicians who maintain eye contact—who actually SEE their patients, and allow themselves to be seen in this personal intimacy—are already ahead in the process of healing. Western healers who are also well informed about the cultures and habits of the populations they serve, are best equipped to provide real healing to those peoples.
- The African healer, prior to any real conversation, conducted a visual examination that was both careful, yet discreet, but thorough enough to pick up on major issues of my medical history. He then confirmed his observations verbally with me. While Western physicians rely on carefully questioned medical histories, regarding both past and present issues, the most effective of these also incorporate information gained from careful and complete visual examination of the entire patient, including how they walk, move and sit. Even though the information acquired may not be immediately relevant, they might take the time to confirm their observations with the patient.
- Having dispensed with any possible physical symptoms that might need to be addressed, the African healer moved on to more spiritual, and/or psychological problems. Again, he provided an overview of his observations (as revealed to him by my grandfather, in his interpretation), and began discussing how to address any that I agreed needed to be addressed. The most effective Western physicians of my experience incorporated a concern for their patient’s total well-being, and sought to first verify, then connect any need to integrate this knowledge with their treatment of the current condition.
- Both physical and psychological/spiritual issues were connected to my family and my physical environment by the African healer, who utilized both my family history and my present environment—including the earth itself—in his treatment plan. Western medicine acknowledges these elements of many illnesses, but traditional cultures never separate the patient from family, community, and earth in the diagnosis of illness, as well as in the treatment thereof. In Western medicine, if we have to address these “side” issues, they are usually referred to other specialists. From my experience, however, effective physicians still retain a healthy respect for the role of the social and physical environment of their patients, and how these may powerfully effect healing.
For a long time, I missed the experience of a number of these comforting and important characteristics of the Healer when it was necessary for me to seek treatment for the ailments of increasing age. It has been both a blessing and a deeply healing experience for me to find myself in a place where so many physicians, as well as other health care providers at all levels, consciously hold to the highest and most humane standards of the sacred calling of Healer, even while embracing all that modern medicine adds to that calling. I can’t praise them enough for their courage, and for being willing to add all these things to the time-consuming and demanding professional lives that they must keep in balance.
Nor can I stress with enough force and determination my belief that this calling, and the fulfillment of the vocation in its highest standards, is allowed only to human beings who have been gifted with the empathy, compassion and commitment to carry it through successfully.
IT CANNOT BE FULFILLED BY INSURANCE COMPANIES, LEGISLATIVE BODIES, BUREAUCRATIC STRUCTURES OF MEDICAL CORPORATIONS, OR COMPUTER PROGRAMS!