It is difficult to separate African medicine from African religion. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, the African general theory of illness is very broad; it includes African theology. In other words, the theory not only attempts to explain illness and disease but also the relations between God and the niverse. The second reason, related to the previous one, is that many traditional healers are also religious leaders and vice versa.
The traditional medical sector has continued to grow despite the attempts by early Christian missionaries and others to suppress it; and it has continued to grow because traditional healers are successful in curing a large number of illnesses. Traditional healers use both scientific and non-scientific or subjective knowledge. Scientific medicines are obtained mainly from plants. Many plant medicines recommended by traditional healers are correct even when judged by modern scientific methods. This empirical knowledge has been developed through trial and error, experimentation and systematic observation over a long period of time. The major sources of non-scientific or subjective knowledge are the various spirits believed to play a part in health. The social and psychological methods of treatment developed from this unscientific base often bring good results.
Participation in traditional religions is increasing. The point that was often made by early Christian leaders that many African religious rites and rituals and many of their cultural practices are against Christian faith and morals is, in fact, not correct. In recent years a number of African scholars have shown that many traditional practices that Christian churches eliminated or tried to eliminate were not, in fact, against Christian faith and morals. African religion does not encourage belief in witchcraft; it merely accepts the fact that witches exist in Africa. Witches are regarded as sinners and it is the duty of religious leaders to talk about witchcraft and to attempt to discourage its practice. African religion does not encourage people to venerate their ancestors instead of worshiping; members of African religion talk to their ancestors but worship God. African religion says, God is for everyone everywhere. God takes very little interest in the day-to-day affairs of individuals. God is not concerned with purely personal affairs but with matters of national and international importance. The ancestral spirits, on the other hand, are concerned with the day-to-day affairs of their descendants. They are the intermediaries between the living and God. People pray to God through their ancestors.
Many Africans who became Christians found it difficult to abandon their religion and medicine completely. Christian conversion was, therefore, shallow; it did not always change the African people's understanding of life and their relationship to their ancestral spirits and God.
The way forward for the Christian church is to examine carefully African religion and medicine and other cultural aspects, with a view to identifying clearly those practices that are not against Christian faith and morals and incorporate them into modern medicine and Christian worship; if possible, the should also try to find a way out of what are considered non-Christian rites and other cultural practices. A few Christian churches are already doing this.
There is a need for dialogue between the leaders of Christian churches and the leaders of African religion and medicine. Unplanned interaction might continue to create new problems, misunderstandings and conflict. The need is for sound and genuine dialogue, involving negotiations whenever necessary.
Prof. Gordon L. Chavunduka is president of the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers' Association.