Kigezi Healthcare Foundation – Official Blog

KIHEFO promotes local initiated solutions to fight disease, ignorance and poverty in southwestern Uganda

Constructing the Illness Experience – Traditional Medicine & Healing in Uganda

(Photo by Iris Mustich)

(Photo by Iris Mustich)

By Iris Mustich

Today we went to visit one of KIHEFO’s community partners, a traditional healer, at his clinic on Lake Bunyonyi. The title of this article, “Constructing the Illness Experience” is taken from a lecture from my medical anthropology class last semester. During the lecture we spent a lot of time talking about the culture of biomedicine in relation to other medical cultures. It was amazing to be able to talk to a traditional healer here in Uganda and hear his perspective on medicine and the illness narrative. I got to apply all of what I learned last semester firsthand, which was such a memorable experience.

Lake Bunyonyi is 65 feet deep and is the second deepest lake in Uganda. It is a 15 minute drive from Kabale town. Once we got to the lake, we took a motor boat across to the side of the lake where Sam Muiisa lives and works at his personal home and clinic. We spent some time with him and he told us about his life and his medical practice.

CFHI students - Iris, Adrienne & Amanda

CFHI students – Iris, Adrienne & Amanda

Muiisa was baptised as a child, but still believes in traditional religion and healing. He has four wives and more than 16 children. Three of his wives act as assistants in his healing process. His first two wives are traditional birth attendants. His third wife travels to volcanoes and to a nearby National Park (roughly two hours by car, so actually relatively far) to collect the supplies he needs for healing.

Sam Muiisa, traditional healer (Photo by Iris Mustich)

Sam Muiisa, traditional healer (Photo by Iris Mustich)

We visited Muiisa in his home, which is a traditional hut made out of bamboo and mud with a thatched roof. His house does not have a permanent door; he believes he is protected by his gods from any harm, and in over sixty years no one has ever attempted to enter his home without permission. This hut also functions as the healer’s clinic. There is papyrus on the floor which functions as a mat, and we sat on tree stump stools inside as Maurice told us about his way of healing.

He wore a traditional healing uniform, which consisted of a the skins of rare animals. This showed his power and gift of the gods. On his head he wore the skin of a black and white colobus monkey, on his chest he wore the skin of a lion, and on his legs he wore the skin of a waterbuck.

The Modernization of Ugandan Culture

Traditional religion, which was common in Africa before it was colonized, has become taboo in recent years. While many Ugandans do in fact still believe in traditional religion, most will not admit that they do. The same goes for traditional medicine, which has its roots in the same area as traditional African religion. The statistics that I have been given say that while most Ugandans will not admit to using a traditional healer, 80% of Ugandans actually do still use them. Because traditional medicine has become taboo, many clients go to Muiisa at night so they will not be seen by others when they seek his help.

The following story really struck me. Our translator, Lilian, was telling us about a woman who decided that she wanted to be baptised in the church. When she said this, the reverend at the church told her she had to burn her house because she had practiced traditional religion and traditional medicine, and the church believed there were still spirits in the house. The church came and burned down her hut so she could be baptised, which meant that the woman no longer had a place to live. This happened last weekend.

It is amazing to me that in order to become a part of the church, this woman had to give up her home and move in with her son. She had a perfectly good hut of her own to live in before, but the church burned it and all of her possessions so that there would be no remnents of her history as a believer in traditional religion.

Rubble of the woman's former home that was burned down. (Photo - Iris Mustich)

Rubble of the woman’s former home that was burned down. (Photo – Iris Mustich)

Community Partnerships in Action

The healer explained to us that his powers are a gift passed down through the generations of his family; the gods decide who will retain the gift. This is where the visit got really interesting for me. Maurice told us that he acknowledges that there are different types of ailments; for the purposes of this post I will call one illness and one disease.

He acknowledges that illnesses, which are usually psychological, spiritual, or other problems that can be treated with herbs, potions, and spiritual healing are within his area of expertise. He also acknowledges that there are diseases that have a much more scientific basis that are out of his realm of knowledge, such as HIV and malnutrition. He refers cases of these diseases, which he diagnoses, to Dr. Anguyo at KIHEFO.This is one way that KIHEFO works with the community to foster positive relationships and trust with community members and community leaders.

Muiisa said that he is the chief of a group of 30 traditional healers in Kabale district who meet each month to discuss cases they have had and what they have learned. They also put together seminars for doctors so that doctors can learn what they do. In addition, Maurice said many of the other healers feel as he does that there are certain diseases that are not within their capacity to treat, and they refer these cases to doctors.

I honestly think that this type of partnership is a brilliant way of gaining the trust of the community and of learning to understand and support other cultural beliefs. Today was an eye opening experience, and an extension of an education I started in my anthropology class at Michigan last semester.

Iris Mustich is a fourth-year undergraduate student at the University of Michigan. She is completing a 4-week internship at KIHEFO through the Child Family Health International (CFHI) partnership. Read more about her experiences in Kabale, Uganda by visiting her personal blog – My Side of the Mountain.

Inspired to get involved with KIHEFO? Visit our official website today – click here.


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