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Copyright F.B. Welbourn 1968


Putting things right - diviners and herbalists

Story A at the beginning of Chapter One tells how a traditional healer diagnosed certain symptoms as being caused by the ghost of the patient's paternal aunt. He advised the parents to take the patient to the Government hospital, while he would deal with the ghost. It is easy enough to interpret this advice as sheer dishonesty. He knew he could not cure the child's symptoms. But he did not wish to miss the chance of making money. So he took the safe course of sending the child to hospital while inventing a reason for keeping himself in the picture.

But this interpretation is to misunderstand the traditional approach of many African societies not only to sickness and other causes but to the whole of life. In many parts of Africa it is widely known that malaria is caused by the bite of a mosquito and that the most effective cure is an injection obtainable in hospitals. But the question remains, 'Why did the mosquito bite me and not the other fellow?; and this becomes,'Who sent the mosquito to bite me?' It may be a ghost or a witch; and, unless the malevolent force can be appeased, it will send another mosquito to bite the patient as soon as he is released from hospital. The appeasement must come first; and for this a specialist must be consulted.

Again and again, what is called 'natural causation' is recognised. A rock stands precariously at the top of a steep slope. Eventually the supporting soil is eroded by rain and the rock falls with a crash to the bottom. So long as nobody is hurt, no questions are asked. The 'natural' explanation is accepted. Curiosity is not aroused by an event which has no personal consequences. There is no urge to look for religious, or for deeper scientific, explanations. But, if in falling the rock hurts a man, some personal cause will almost certainly be invoked to explain why natural causes intervened at this particular point in his personal history. Again it may be a ghost or a witch. It may the spirit of the rock, which has in some way been offended. But impersonal terms, such as 'bad luck' or 'accident', are felt to be wholly inadequate.

So with death in general. The Baganda, for instance, recognise the 'natural' causes of death - disease, physical accident, war, or simply old age. But in every case - and this is still true for large numbers of Baganda, even of those who call themselves Christian - no real satisfaction is felt unless an act of sorcery, the ill-will of a particular individual, can be invoked to explain why this natural cause produced the death of this person at this time.

A useful illustration of this approach to events is the man who cuts his finger while chopping firewood. He will use some effective material means of stopping the bleeding, of healing the wound. It will be known to most adults; and it is more than likely that it has been selected, over the centuries, as the most effective of several possible means of cure. If he cuts his finger several days running the material treatment is still required. But, in addition, it will be supposed that an evil, personal force is making him do this. He will go to a 'diviner', a professional who - by a variety of means which will be discussed later - names the spirit or the witch responsible and prescribes a ritual by which the evil force can be neutralised. There is a third possibility - that the man cuts his finger right off. In that case, no cure is possible. But the evil force must still be dealt with, lest the patient cut off yet another finger.

It is extremely difficult to know how to define the difference between these two types of treatment and the kinds of causation which they imply. Neither 'natural and supernatural' (Chapter Two) nor 'scientific and magical' (Chapter Three) are satisfactory. Moreover, recent tests have shown that the value of some modern pharmaceutical drugs depends on whether or not doctor and patient believe in their efficacy. It is extremely difficult to distinguish this kind of medicine from traditional sorcery. Equally, there is ample evidence of Africans (and even of some Europeans in Africa) whose sickness has defeated the skill of scientifically-trained doctors but has yielded to traditional practitioners who interpreted it in terms of witches and ghosts. The existence of these entities must, in all fairness, be regarded as a hypothesis which, in certain circumstances, works. The question remains open whether, like the aether of the nineteenth-century physicists, it is a hypothesis which can be discarded in favour of a more general concept; or, like the alternatives of the wave and particle theories of light, is applicable in certain contexts but not in others.

Perhaps the least unsatisfactory terms are 'physical' and 'psychic'. This corresponds to a distinction which is recognised, for instance, in the language of the Baganda, though they could not easily define it. In western terms, 'physical' events can be located accurately in space and time (though that is hardly true of an electron). 'Psychic' events cannot be located by physical methods and do not obey any known physical laws. On the one hand are phenomena, such as ghosts and extra-sensory perception, which are considered by 'psychical research' and are regarded by most contemporary Britons as superstitions. On the other hand are such concepts as 'consciousness' and 'the unconscious', which are the field of 'psychology'; and apart from behaviourist psychologists, most contemporary Britons regard both these processes as having 'real' effects in the physical world. From the immediate point of view, this ambiguity in the use of the root psych- is an advantage. It can be used to refer to a number of alleged, non-physical entities, without discussing whether or not they 'really' exist.




In the case of the cut finger, the three possibilities of treatment can be plotted in relation to co-ordinate axes, of which the x-axis represents physical, and the y-axis psychic, causes (see diagram 2). In that case, the simple cutting of a finger has co-ordinates (x1, 0); cuts on successive occasions has (x2, y2); and cutting a finger off has (0, y3). The physical and the psychic are not alternative but complementary factors in every event. The simple cutting may have a psychic component, though in this case it is regarded as sufficiently unimportant to be disregarded. With the development of physical skills, a means might be found of restoring the finger which has been cut off. In that case the new means would be used; but it would still be essential to neutralise the evil psychic force.

It was said earlier that many traditional African medicines have been proved and improved by experience. A diviner - whose primary function is to discover the psychic cause of trouble - may himself be also a medicine man. (The term 'witch-doctor' should be used to refer only to one who hunts out witches). It is just as likely that, having divined the psychic cause, he will send the patient to another specialist for physical treatment; and there are specialists not only in herbal medicine but in bone-setting and highly-skilled trepanning without anaesthetics or antiseptics. It is, therefore, not surprising if some of them have recognised that, at least in some cases, western medicine is physically superior to their own. There are still some cases where they maintain (not without evidence) that their methods are better than western methods; and when it comes to dealing with psychic forces, western men know nothing. But in an increasing number of cases, they have come to regard western medicine as the best method of dealing with physical causes, while they themselves deal with the psychic aspects. The traditional healer, in Story A, was behaving in just this way. He kept in his own hands the dealings with the aunt's ghost. For medical treatment he referred his patient to the best specialist available - in this case the Government hospital. Similarly, the patient with malaria might very well prefer treatment in hospital to any traditional herbal remedies. But no hospital could prevent another mosquito being sent to bite him. That aspect of the case needed psychic measures.

One way of understanding the difference between 'physical' and 'psychic' is to say that every event has both general and unique characteristics. It can be put in a class with other events and seen to be subject to general laws. Or it can be seen as unique and unrepeatable; and every event is, in fact, unique. This is true even of a controlled laboratory experiment because the time factor is always different and the personal factor can never be wholly eliminated.

It is, perhaps, more strikingly true of such events as death from lung cancer or from road accident. It is possible to say, with a high degree of statistical accuracy, how many people of particular ages, sexes, occupations will die from these causes in a particular year. It is not possible to say which individual will so die; and perhaps the only difference between ascribing it to 'luck' or 'fate' and holding a witch responsible is that one response is less personal than the other. In both cases there is the recognition that general causes show themselves in unique effects.

By and large, the majority of contemporary Britons tend to emphasise the importance of general laws and to attribute their unique effects to impersonal causes. The majority of contemporary Africans still tend to be more concerned with the uniqueness of things and to think in terms of personal causes. When Britons, during Hitler's war, thought that they would be hit by a bomb only if it 'had my name on it', they were adopting very much the same attitude. 'It won't happen to me. I'm different' is a fairly common way of expressing the converse of this attitude. Although natural causes hit everyone else, I have some mysterious quality which will enable me to enjoy them.

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