Health in the African context refers to a state of positive mental and physical well-being. It is a state of normalcy marked by the absence of disease. The World Health Organization holds that health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Health may also be considered as a positive state necessary for the maintenance of physical and spiritual well-being. From this perspective, Africans see health as the normal state in which individuals can attain their best, thereby contributing toward the greater social good. Health is also understood as a state of well-being. Well-being refers to the state of fulfillment whereby both the individual and society are spared from mental and physical discomfort and enjoy peace of mind. This entry looks at illness or the absence of physical health, touches on social and emotional health, and looks at contemporary health care.
Kinds of Illness
Health can also be explained in terms of its opposite state—illness. Illness is regarded as the absence of good health, an abnormal state that hinders an individual to perform his duties as expected by society, a form of deviance. A state of ill health or illness is not natural nor is it a matter of chance. Any occurrence has an explanation. Notions of probability and coincidence are foreign to the African belief system. There are natural and unnatural illnesses.
Chavunduka distinguishes between normal and abnormal illness. Symptoms of normal or natural illness disappear quickly with little or no treatment. Natural illnesses are headaches, coughs, and stomach aches. But illnesses that persist and resist cure by simple medicine are believed to have been caused by supernatural happenings. A diviner is consulted for diagnosis. The diviner may diagnose the cause of an illness as an ancestor spirit that may want to possess the victim and has to be honored by ritual sacrifice. The spirits may also punish their living descendents if they have committed an offense.
The diviner may also diagnose illness as caused by witchcraft or sorcery by an enemy or an avenging spirit, such as that of a person who died as a result of murder. There are preventive measures that are done to restore health. If illness is caused by a witch, the diviner will break the power of witchcraft; if it is spirit possession, the patient should accept the spirit possession in order to be well. Usually the diviner will prescribe medicine to restore health. Charms or amulets are also given by diviners.
There are also preventative measures that the diviner may apply. He may recommend performance of a ritual that involves pouring tobacco and libation in order to appease the anger of spirits so that they will protect the sick person from attack by supernatural causes of illness. Once the rituals are performed, health is restored. The individual recovers and attains full health. So the state of good health is holistic because it covers the physical, social, and spiritual well-being of the individual and society.
Health is also linked to a state of peace and serenity considered as well-being. A good state of health is naturally concomitant with stability that covers human beings and nature. This is experienced from culture, environment, and harmonious relationships with one's spiritual elders, which bring peace and happiness. This state of good health also relates to success and prosperity in all spheres of life, such as agriculture, hunting, and marriage. Health and well-being can also be experienced in the contexts of abundant rainfall, fertility of land and people, fields bearing fruits, flocks and herds multiplying, and bumper harvests. Such a state of good health of the land and people is desirable and healthy, free from its opposite states of misfortune, sickness, and death.
In the African experience, health is an expression of the state of spiritual cosmos. The traditional worldview is abundant with belief in God and ancestors who take care of the living descendants. A healthy society is that which has a harmonious relationship with spirits, positive execution of morality, practice of good conduct, and communal living. Ill practices such as incest, murder, violation of taboos, and so on create problems and dislocate harmonious relations. When harmony is broken, the living make steps to address the anomaly and restore right relationships. Life is regarded as a special gift from God. Health is thus viewed as fullness of life. So for the religious Africans, it is the harmonious integration of the spiritual powers with the will of the living to produce a balanced physical and cosmological order.
In their effort to attain good health, traditional healers in Africa have formed various National Associations that include several thousands of men and women. The associations are registered and recognized by governments. They operate alongside African Independent church healers who believe in faith healing. Both health systems offer alternative therapy to Western scientific medicine.
Generally, there are four determinants of health: human biology, environment, lifestyle, and health care organization. So in Africa, people sustain good health through access to nutritious traditional foodstuffs. People also make efforts to sustain health by introducing herbal gardens that grow traditional plants and produce traditional medicines. The aim is to support and maintain traditional scientific, cultural, and environmental benefits. Health is therefore achieved through sustainable use of medicinal plants.
There are numerous illnesses and diseases in Africa that claim many lives, such as tuberculosis, malaria, and cholera. HIV/AIDS is one such kind of disease that has affected many people. Millions have died so far, creating the problem of orphans who need care and attention. Vaccinations are available as a form of protection against the spread of the diseases. Global efforts to combat disease are hindered by insufficient resources. But there are also some policies that restrict access to essential treatment and comprehensive health care.
- Chavunduka, G.L. (1978). Traditional Healers and the Shona Patient. Gweru, Zimbabwe: Mambo Press.
- Dubos R. Determinants of Health and Disease Britannica Perspectives 1 (1986). 281.
- Herzlich, C. (1973). Health and Illness. London: Academic Press.
- Yoder, P. S. (Ed.). (1982). African Health and Healing Systems: Proceedings of a Symposium. Los Angeles: Crossroads.