Home > Research > AIDS and Society Research Unit > Publications > Publications All > Pub home > Negotiating relationships between biomedicine and sangoma: Fundamental misunderstandings, avoidable mistakes

Negotiating relationships between biomedicine and sangoma: Fundamental misunderstandings, avoidable mistakes

Year: 2005
Working paper number: 138
Author: Wreford, Joanne
Unit: ASRU

In South Africa, traditional African and biomedical practitioners operate in parallel, but largely separate, arenas, in which collaboration is largely absent. This paper suggests that any positive benefits of pluralism tend to be undermined by fractious and confrontational relationships between the biomedical and traditional systems, a situation which appears especially the case for traditional practitioners such as sangoma, who call on the spiritual guidance of ancestral agency in their healing work. Motivated in part by the author's personal experience of training and qualification as a sangoma, this paper seeks to stimulate an intellectual debate about sangoma healing as it relates to the scientific understandings of biomedicine, most especially in the context of HIV/AIDS interventions in South Africa. The collaborative medical relationships advocated here do not deny the technical expertise of biomedicine nor question the commitment of allopathic practitioners to health and healing. Rather the paper seeks to address the risks to biomedicine's efficacy in the hubris which drives it to remain disengaged from its traditional counterparts. The paper argues that as biomedicine appears uncomfortable with the spiritual aspects of the traditional paradigm, the absence of spirituality in allopathic practice confuses traditional healers, a situation which prejudices working relationships. I will argue that biomedical professionals, rather than denying or decrying traditional African healing, could emulate the few of their number who have engaged with traditional practice. I will demonstrate how a working knowledge of some of the fundamental ideas of African healing and its spiritual evocations - the question of healing and cure, theories of pollution and cleansing, the functions of ritual, the purposes of witchcraft and the healing of witchcraft, to mention a few – may actually empower biomedical practitioners, and enable them to work with rather than against sangoma.

Publication file: wp138.pdf