Traditional healers in Africa: learning from the Maasai

February 8, 2021

Article by Global Pre-Meds
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As part of our global health experience program in Tanzania, premed and prehealth students will spend a day with the Maasai tribe and learn from traditional healers in Africa.

Getting global health experience with us at Global Pre-Meds includes understanding the grassroots healthcare systems as well as shadowing a doctor at a modern health center. 

Whether you are interested in becoming a doctor, nurse, physician assistant, or midwife, a global health perspective will add great value to your career. 

We have explored what premed and prehealth students can learn about global health from studying the Maasai and the traditional healers in Africa.

Traditional healers in Africa

Traditional healers in Africa are one avenue for patients who live far from modern healthcare facilities, or for those who have more trust in the skills of a tribal healer than a primary health care center. 

While some westerners may not see it that way, it’s just one of the many aspects of culture and tradition that impact healthcare delivery in Africa. As a premed or prehealth student, you might understand it as a patient looking for treatment from a trusted member of their community, rather than a stranger in a facility far away.

Some patients visit traditional healers in Africa to assist with spiritual problems, such as breaking a streak of bad luck or a curse that was put on them. Others go to a traditional healer to handle chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, digestive issues, or malaria. 

Healthcare professionals in African countries are sometimes at odds with the work of these healers. However, in order for all citizens to access proper care, it is helpful to understand all the factors that impact patient care in a commnity.

As a future healthcare professional yourself, you may also encounter patients who have gone for diagnosis or taken treatment that you may not agree with or understand.

Culture plays an important part in understanding a community and in how patients receive care. Getting a global health perspective to stay open minded and be able to assess cultural implications on medicine will help you become a better healthcare professional.

Learning about global health from the Maasai 

Our Global Pre-Meds team traveled to a remote village of the Maasai tribe to visit with a traditional healer. This unforgettable experience allowed us to see firsthand what primary healthcare can look like in a rural community

The Maasai are a pastoral tribe, meaning they often travel with their livestock to look for greener pastures. Nowadays, it is difficult for them to travel as much as their ancestors because of frequent land disputes. We were told that many move twice a year, following the change in the seasons from rainy to dry. 

The Maasai rely on a diet of milk, meat, and blood, sometimes adding traditional foods like ugali or rice. They trade their livestock and other goods in the markets for other foods, rather than relying on farming. 

All of these environmental and lifestyle factors affect what kinds of healthcare issues the community experiences and how they may go for care. It’s why we include time for you to move through the village and observe the way of life in addition to talking with the healer.

Cultural heritage and belief systems also play a huge part in healthcare delivery. It’s part of the reason Maasai may prefer a traditional healer over more westernized medicine. 

The traditional healer within the Maasai tribe relies primarily on herbal medicine. We observed a traditional healer demonstrate how he treats patients using herbs, a pot, and heated stones. 

First, the patient may come to the healer and tell them they have a problem, but they may not divulge all the details. After some time – perhaps even a night’s sleep – the healer will come back to the patient with a treatment plan. The traditional healer will heat up stones to place in the pot with the herbal treatments. The patient puts a blanket over their heads and inhales the steam as treatment. 

During our visit with the tribal healer of the Maasai, a patient from over twenty years ago had returned. He had originally received treatment for alcoholism and it had been so successful that he was back again with a different problem – a family problem. The patient kept it vague because the healer was to figure out the treatment plan in his dreams. 

While you may never use these treatment practices yourself, the experience of learning about culture and medicine in this way will help you understand patients from many different backgrounds and learn to ask questions and better your understanding.

Along with your day in the Maasai village, you will spend several days in a healthcare facility in Tanzania, where you will shadow doctors as they treat patients for many different ailments. This allows you to compare and contrast the care, and learn about how one healthcare provider’s work may impact the other. 

You may meet patients with the traditional healer who have tried modern healthcare facilities, and you may meet patients at the health center that have visited the traditional healer already. You will get a well-rounded, in depth view of the Tanzanian healthcare system.

Getting global health experience as a premed student

Finding global health experience abroad can be a challenge for premed students. It’s important that you find a safe and ethical opportunity. 

There are mission trips, volunteer programs, internships, and curated programs like ours. If you are searching online, make sure you check for vetted reviews so you know they are a legitimate organization. They should be transparent about their operations and how they plan to keep you safe

At Global Pre-Meds, our programs are all strictly observational. There is no physical contact between you and patients, but you will be on the frontlines watching a medical doctor or tribal healer in their work. 

Part of your program fee goes towards paying the hospitals, doctors, and tribal communities that help provide this amazing learning experience. Your participation helps improve their lives and increase local access to healthcare

If you are looking for global health experience abroad, check with your pre-health advisor or school’s health club. They may be able to recommend a safe and reliable program for you. 

If you are interested in hospital doctor shadowing or global health experience, you can learn more about our dates, fees, and application process here.