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Australia, Indigenous knowledge

Aboriginal traditional healers get international psychotherapy award

Growing recognition of traditional health professionals


A group of Aboriginal traditional healers will receive an international psychotherapy award in Sydney today, the Sigmund Freud Award 2011 [1]. This is yet another evidence that, gradually, the idea is taking hold that traditional knowledge has something to offer to the world. The WHO and UNAIDS [2], too, have been running programmes to support and integrate traditional medicine into national health systems, a fact which doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. Increasingly, patients can now receive modern and/or traditional treatments from certified specialists if they wish, in an environment that allows modern medical doctors and certified traditional practitioners to coexist and collaborate, for example in some of Kenya’s hospitals.
In spite of the good services of many competent practitioners in Africa, though, decades of continuous disparagement from modern medicine, the Churches, school education, etc. have created a tendency to believe that anything foreign is better than the local tradition. Just a few days ago, some practitioners complained on the international radio station Africa No. 1 in Libreville (Gabon) that they are now facing new competition from foreign healers, especially from China, whom some patients tend to prefer in spite of much higher rates, while they themselves can also offer good cures for even less money.
On the other hand, the settings in which the healers used to practice no longer exist in quite the same way, at least in modern urban centres, which can make it difficult to identify good practitioners or sellers of herbal medicine and avoid those which are not trustworthy. For a good integration of traditional medicine into modern national health systems, adequate legislation and support from the authorities are needed [3], but also information for the wider public. Let us hope mentalities continue to evolve, and that the healers, too, live up to the expectations of patients by organizing themselves well and making it difficult for imposters to join their ranks.

[1] For more details, cf. the homepage of the World Congress for Psychotherapy.


About safisy

Researcher with a background in social anthropology, philosophy and linguistics. Main interests: topics related to Africa, the history of ideas and traditions, multiculturalism, social and political topics, civil and cultural rights, ecology, historical linguistics.


2 thoughts on “Aboriginal traditional healers get international psychotherapy award

  1. I think a lot about the meeting of modern medicine and traditional healing. My reading/research has convinced me that many natural “alternative” therapies entering the American mainstream (like homeopathy) have no effect other than as a placebo (though that is worth debating as a valid effect). But it’s obvious that many traditions of healing from around the world might have something to offer our harried modern system – including the element of personal attention to the patient and a holistic approach that does not reduce patients to a single medical condition which needs a certain drug.

    My own in-laws are African (South African), and my mother-in-law’s health suffers a lot as she ages. She will occasionally end up at a modern doctor or at the hospital, but she also takes long jaunts out to her childhood home in the eastern province, where she stays for weeks or months under the care of a traditional African healer. She seems to emerge from these stints feeling much better. I don’t know if the healer does indeed provide some kind of treatment that helps her medically, or if the simple rest and human support is what aids her (modern medicine would be immeasurably better were these added more often to treatments).

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting/subscribing to my blog during the Freshly Pressed child bans bonanza the other day. I’ll welcome your thoughtful comments anytime you want to respond.

    Posted by Alaina Mabaso | September 12, 2011, 11:01 pm
    • Thank you Alaina for commenting on my post, it’s interesting to hear how your mother-in-law is responding to traditional treatment. Personally I think a lot about this topic, trying to blend anthropology and philosophy in my research I work on concepts of the human person, the relations of humans with fellow beings like animals, plants, minerals etc., and cosmology . What traditional approaches have to offer (if they’re genuine and not just for money of course) is a holistic treatment that takes into account different levels of our being, in any case more than modern medicine usually does. Personal attention surely helps a lot, like you say. I myself wouldn’t hesitate to consult a traditional practitioner, provided I trust her/him and I have sufficient understanding of the background of their practices, just like I would trust a medical doctor who was recommended to me.

      I once had an interesting talk with someone from a Brahmin family, who told me that his family back home have a family doctor who knows the health record of all family members over generations. His father, grandfather etc. were already treating the family and the records have been passed on to him. That way he has a much more intimate understanding of what is going on within a patient and where the problems might come from, or to which treatment the patient might respond best. It is an interesting concept and I guess it comes close to other traditional forms of healing where family and ancestry are taken into account.
      In Europe, too, people are now much more sensitive to these issues and try to incorporate them when they feel challenged in one way or the other, especially in their health.
      I always enjoy reading your articles on your blog and sometimes it is only for lack of time that I postpone my comments. Thank you for inspiring me, your comments are always welcome.

      Posted by safisy | September 13, 2011, 10:03 am

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