Medicine Men and Women

From the earliest of times, Africans have conceptualized a special class of individuals (men and women) as having evolved to interpret, address, and eradicate the experience of disease. These communally based individuals worked in pursuit of optimal health. They were responsible for protecting people from physical and spiritual harm. They are known as traditional healers or priests, shamans—medicine men and women. Traditional healers come from a wide variety of ethnic/ national backgrounds and often cultivate specific areas of expertise. They are the professional doctors within communities who are guided by God through the orishas (divinities) and the ancestors. They are often believed to channel the spirit of the ancestors for assistance. This entry looks at their training and practice, as well as their role in different African societies.

Preparation and Practice

Because of the great responsibility within the role of traditional healer, medicine men and women were wholly accountable to the communities they served. They performed healing, divining, and counseling. The process of becoming a traditional healer varied among ethnic groups and nations; however, the common underlying factors of training included
  1. some quality or attribute that identifies the individual as one for service;
  2. an expectation as part of a family or occupational tradition;
  3. a reflection period involving initiation and meditation on service;
  4. apprenticeship and training in diagnoses of disease and in the uses of healing tools, foods, animals, rituals of sacrifice, libation, spiritual literature, and proscriptive behaviors;
  5. a thorough knowledge of the corpus comprising medicinal plants and botanicals that constituted an herbal pharmacy; and
  6. leadership in the social discourses surrounding dance, drumming, and trance.
Training rituals and ceremonies are conducted, and sometimes the initiate takes a new name, but all possess a title indicating their status as healers. After completing a usually arduous initiation ritual, the candidates emerge as people transformed to serve as spiritual arbiters of the community's religious beliefs. In certain cultures—especially those with secret healing societies—those accepted to the profession will bear a body mark (tattoo cicatrization) of acceptance.
In addition, the traditional African healer, more often than not, possesses sacred attire and a collection of divine tools and implements. In addition to hosting curative rituals and ceremonies, in some cases, traditional African healers may preside over guilt or innocence hearings. Traditional African healers have customarily accepted fees or in-kind payments for their services, indicating a form of divine reciprocity within the community.

Some Examples

The traditional African healing system is filled with a diverse array of practitioners given titles that indicate their specific function in society. A medicine man or woman may be a midwife, spiritual healer, or medical herbalist, for example. Among the Ibo people in West Africa, the Dibia serves as the herbal medicine man. In the lower Congo, among the many meanings of the term Nganga, it also refers to the individual who is the “healer of diseases.” Swazi traditional healers are known as Tinyanga, who are primarily responsible for herbal medicine, while the Tangoma are those who serve as spiritual intermediaries.
Females have always possessed important roles as traditional healers in many societies. In Southwest Africa, the Ondudu is the female healer of the Kuanyama Amba. The Ndebele Igosos are elder priestesses who are mediums on behalf of the ancestral spirits and humans. The ancestors then translate the messages from the Igosos to God, Nkulunkulu. Of note are some of the high priests of traditional African healing, including the Ifa priests of the Yoruba in Nigeria and the Sangoma in South Africa. In addition, the Kikuyu have a wide variety of healers known as Muraguri or Mundumugo.
There are also considerable discussions about the mystery (called secret) societies of African healers in Africa. They model the closed network associations of lineages devoted to the occupation of healing. An example of this kind of group is the Ndako Gboya society of the Nupe in Nigeria. Also in Nigeria, among the Yoruba, the Babalawo—whose paradigm survived the holocaust middle passage—is the traditional healer through orisha divination, while the Onisegun focus on curing physical and emotional dysfunction. They both combat arun (disease) and ese (generalized human affliction). Furthermore, among the Lango people of Uganda, the Omara serve as authorized medicine men.
Traditional African healers were interested in all aspects of optimal health. In addition to treating disease, they used plants to increase good fortune, balance energy, reconcile emotional problems in personal relationships, and prevent generalized events of misfortune. They also used ancient symbols, amulets, and talismans to assist the transformation of the individual from sickness to good health. The traditional African healer represents one of the oldest and strongest examples of continuity with the past for the African diaspora. They orally transmitted medical knowledge and prescriptions.
As powerful as the traditional medicine men appeared in the process of curing disease, they became exceedingly potent after death. Medicine men and women are an essential component within the larger traditional African medical system, which seeks to address the challenges of disease.



  • traditional healing
  • medicine man
  • herbal medicine
  • healing
  • Nigeria
  • medicine
  • spirituals


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