On 1 September the Faculty of Health Sciences, at the University of Pretoria Prinshof campus, hosted daily themes and seminars as part of the Anti-Discrimination and Social justice week at UP. The event was hosted by Prof. Catherine Burns. Contested points under the theme ranged from medicine and humanities to the integration of western medical knowledge and traditional healer knowledge.

However, the most contested and discussed issue was the need to acknowledge the role that traditional healers can play in the field of health in South Africa and how to go about acknowledging traditional healers in a westernised medical world.

According to Prof. Burns, “there are still issues of discrimination in the medical field and some of these issues of discrimination are deeply embedded within all of our education systems”. For Prof. Burns, there is a need to make room for the traditional and indigenous medical knowledge of traditional healers to pioneer new frontiers of medical knowledge for the progression of medicine. Prof. Burns reiterated that for different fields to be able to meet at one point and be on the same table, they have to be linked for the betterment of our society. One doesn’t have to discriminate against the other as both have to have a meeting point for humanity’s sake.

Prof. Burns asked the question “How can one field do without another, how can the medical field do without the Humanities field, how can we work with people we do not respect equally, how can we work successfully when there are such hierarchies in your work?” Prof. Burns also called on unity in the medical profession, stating that “It is hard enough for doctors and nurses [in South Africa] to work together in a dignified way. Go and spend time in Canada, where the average nurse earns more than a doctor now, there you will see team work and outstanding health outcomes.”

Prof. Burns further said that it is necessary for universities in South Africa to have medical humanities departments because even the biggest, most prestigious universities of the world have them and treasure that knowledge. “The degrees in such universities and such departments are preparing us for these complex, ambiguous, tense, difficult forms of research across our bodies of knowledge” she stated.

One of the speakers of the day reiterated the words of Prof. Burns. Sinethemba Makhanya, a Wits PhD student and Traditional Healer, whose research is based on how traditional healers construct mental health, said “Traditional healing is not something you would learn about in school, yet half of South Africa’s population consults traditional healers. South Africans can go see a doctor today and go see a traditional healer tomorrow. I would know because I am also a traditional healer.” Makhanya is a PhD student who combines traditional healing and psychology and hopes to come to a point where knowledge from both could be at the same table. Makhanya reiterates that there is discrimination against traditional healers. She recalls a time when a doctor told her about how they deal with patients who arrive in hospitals and have been consulting a traditional healer. She says when a doctor knows that a patient has been using traditional medicine or consulting a traditional healer, they are told to stop. Makhanya says that she is proof that traditional healing can belong in the academy. Makhanya said that there is another dimension that a western doctor cannot see and in most cases these are easily treated by traditional doctors, meaning that they believe that there is spiritual sickness, soul sickness and blood sickness. Makhanya says that there is a need for conversation between traditional healers and doctors because a large portion of South Africa’s population consults both western doctors and traditional healers.

One of the reasons why Makhanya believes that there should be a conversation around this is because traditional healers feel marginalised and silenced and seem to get the message that they are discriminated against and are inferior. She believes that both western and traditional medicine can work hand-in-hand, in-spite of the existing challenges. She views this discrimination as a danger in its attempt to ‘colonise’ other healers. According to Makhanya, “Doctors are also traditional healers because they come from the tradition of bio-medicine, so even in the very naming of the types of healers we are already saying one is more important than the other. ”

According to Makhanya, “we have to open greater conversations where traditional healers are not going to be colonised, where doctors are not going to train traditional healers but sit down and listen to what traditional healers have to say”. Makhanya ended her address by exploring the idea that “we can have medical practitioners or medical professionals who are thinking in a different kind of way, who can do the work Professor Catherine Burns has done in order to bring medical humanities to South Africa”. She concluded by saying that her ideal for decolonised education is a traditional healing 101 course in medical school, so that doctors can know that traditional healers are effective and so that there can be platforms where doctors and medical healers can talk, because in an integrated team there can be progress.

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