No one can tell 64-year-old Fatoumata Kané anything new about the plants and tree bark around her town of Banamba in western Mali. But the traditional healer recently learned something new: how to detect malnutrition by measuring a child’s upper arm.
Many families bring ailing children to Mrs. Kané each week. She is renowned in the region for her healing powers. But now she refers suspected malnutrition cases to the public health centre. Mrs. Kané believes that traditional and modern medicine can function well together. She says, “I have practiced for more than 20 years now; the gift I have for healing is not going anywhere. But modern medicine can complement it, and vice versa.”
Oumou Sangaré is a local health agent who works with Helen Keller International, a health-focused NGO. In the fight against child malnutrition, NGOs are tapping into the public trust granted to traditional healers and local elders.
Mrs. Sangaré said she first approached Mrs. Kané because too many malnourished children in Banamba were not getting the medical attention they needed.
Mrs. Kané was hesitant at first, but then agreed to talk. They met several times to talk about children’s health. Mrs. Sangaré explained to Mrs. Kané the role she could play in detecting malnutrition and helping children get the care they need. “Now she’s had training and she’s helping us detect cases of malnutrition.”
When illness strikes in sub-Saharan Africa, many people’s first move is to visit the local healer. A doctor in Sierra Leone, who requested anonymity, said, “It is always people’s first choice here. It’s a custom people are addicted to.”
As well as being a custom, it is often the only health care people can afford or access. In some countries in Africa, 80 per cent of people depend on traditional medicine for primary health care, according to the World Health Organization.
Traditional healers and older women already have people’s confidence. Vanessa Dickey is senior nutritionist with Helen Keller International in Mali. She thinks that collaborating with local healers means that more children who need medical care will get it. Ms. Dickey says, “Targeting just mothers can get us only so far. People are going to listen to a traditional healer or a grandmother.”
Traditional medicine is effective for many ailments. But health workers say that child malnutrition is untreatable with traditional medicine. If a parent does not understand the signs, symptoms and causes, various other conditions might be suspected.
Nurses and doctors say it is common to see families consult both a traditional practitioner and a doctor.
The Sierra Leonean doctor says, “It can be OK if people go to both, but only if the traditional healer is competent and knows the limits of his or her capabilities.”
Ms. Dickey agrees that it is not a question of ruling out traditional practitioners. She says, “They can continue to do follow-up. [But] we do urge them not to give malnourished children herbs or teas to consume.” She explains that the body of a malnourished child is really “in chaos.” Some plants, which might not harm another person, could be dangerous for a malnourished child.
Seeing a recovered and healthy child is the most powerful publicity. Mrs. Kané says, “My role is to lighten mothers’ hearts by helping heal sick children.” The collaboration works because everyone wants to see sick children recover. As Mrs. Kané says, “When a child is healthy, the mother is relieved and things go better in the household.”