The paper challenges common approaches to medical practices in traditional or non-conventional cultures: the pre-colonial Igbo culture, the Kikuyu culture, and Ancient Greece. It illustrates that there was inherent depth in those practices and various levels of the organization. This assumption has been supported by the spiritual nature of traditional societies and the importance of offering holistic healing, which is an essential part of Igbo medicine and Kikuyu medicine. A look at the communality of these societies, including how medicine was used in Ancient Greece, also sheds light on why magic formed a crucial part of medicine. Lastly, the paper argued that the manner of training and treatment amongst these cultures also reflects systematic patterns that dispute western understandings of these medical practices.
The general topic in this research initially was how traditional medicine in the three traditional cultures contrasted to modern practices. However, after analyzing some of the literature and studies on this topic, it is clear to see that Western analyses of these practices often employ scientific based frameworks to conceptualize them yet African worldviews differ substantially from Western concepts. One therefore questions the accuracy of such a premise. It is critical to look at these practices in a different and non judgmental light. This paper will therefore argue that medical practices in Ancient Greece, Kikuyu pre colonial and Igbo pre colonial tribes were organized and full of meaning; crucial lessons can be learnt from these practices today.
Numerous anthropologists assert that for any research to be fruitful, then the issues of reality, knowledge and truth must be addressed. As one seeks more knowledge, then one must draw on certain truths which are considered as certain. In other words, in order to assess a knowledge set, one must resort to another knowledge system that is considered certain. However, proving that the latter knowledge system is reliable is a challenge and may not always be agreed upon by other scholars.
In studying the Igbo, Kikuyu and Ancient Greek ways life, one must realize that the patterns, worldviews, practices and values of these communities were engrained in their knowledge systems. Indeed what may be considered as a wrongful approach to dealing with illness through the employment of spiritual forces may actually be seen epistemologically as another way in which these traditional tribes were trying to subvert human limitations of the mind. It is therefore critical to look at their side of the story as effectively as is reasonably possible.
An analysis into the nature of medical practices in these ancient societies is crucial in understanding reality and objectivity. To this end, it is critical to accept that there are cultural modes of knowledge; therefore conventional knowledge systems in the social sciences can be questioned. This research will therefore be crucial in contributing to the debate of subjective reality. Most scientific inquiries are founded on the post modern school of thought.
They often claim that there is an existential reality and that objectivity must then be founded on this premise. This research does not dispute the fact that one can acquire a lot of knowledge but it opposes the fact that this can be done in a perfect manner. Consequently, those aspects of culture in traditional societies that have been treated with discomfort and disdain will be scrutinized in this paper and it will be illustrated that there is indeed a deeper meaning and foundation for such practices in these cultures.
Very limited research has been carried out on medical practices in pre-colonial Igbo and Kikuyu cultures (Ancient Greece has received some considerable attention). The field of medicine can benefit tremendously from understanding knowledge, skills and factors in traditional or indigenous medical practices. There is a need to acknowledge that modern western medicine does not have the solution to all problems in healthcare; this means that answers to current practice gaps can be found in what other cultures possess or possessed in the past.
This study will also be significant in bridging the gap between historical discontinuities and continuities as these have often been debated within the medical field. The latter research will therefore attempt to bring out a complete picture of medical practice because it will show that healing has three facets i.e. performative, aesthetic and symbolic as well. Most studies on the subject have been dwelling only on the aesthetic elements and this makes them incomplete. Cultural has long been ignored as part of the care process. It is therefore crucial to incorporate this process in understanding the curative process. In certain illnesses especially mental ones, ignoring the importance of beliefs can result in serious blunders l one must therefore refrain from doing so.
Western vs Traditional Medicine
Relationships permeated each and every sector of the latter traditional cultures including medicine. Maintenance of harmony between members of the general society, society and nature, society and the spirits and society and God were central to holistic living. In other words, African and ancient Greek practice of medicine was not treated in isolation; it was part of the holistic picture of life. This kind of thinking therefore dramatically altered the way people in these cultures responded to illness.
They assumed that healing could occur when society had repaired broken relationships that had caused problems in the first place. To this end, medical practices were a reflection of the continuum of social, personal and spiritual aspects that constituted life. Additionally, people in the Igbo, Kikuyu and Ancient Greek societies sought to bring back order in their systems or structures such that imbalances could be corrected and healing enacted.
As one analyzes these medical practices, it is therefore critical to be sensitive to this radically different worldview. The western worldview is inherently individualistic. Solutions to medical problems are often limited to their psychological or physical causes and this is what determines the path of solutions.
Failures in Ancient Greece, Kikuyu and Igbo medical practices did exit. Unfortunately, this is an aspect that most western scholars have overemphasized. For instance, a Lagos report given by an Anglican missionary claimed that the Igbo natives had been so convinced by the power of the “Aladura” that most of them resorted to drinking blessed water in order to gain restoration. The practice resorted in rampant spread of diseases such as leprosy. One ought not to deny the existence of such cases but this should not be a basis for completely writing off these practices. The western concept of success in medicine need not be applied in the latter scenario as their views and methodologies were analyzed through radically different spheres.
Amongst the Kikuyu, healing was understood as a remedy for correcting anti life forces. Some of these forces were spiritual in nature while others were natural. In fact, that was the reason why magic or witchcraft formed a central portion of those practices. Diviners, herbalists and medicine were seen as crucial members of society because they provided the platform for correcting these wrongs. (Kenyatta, 103).
Traditional Medicine: A Systematic Approach
When a patient visited a medicine man, it was the medicine man’s duty to first identify the problem as he needed to establish what was disturbing the patient. He then proceeded to determine the cause of that problem; even though symptoms were physical in nature, it was not always assumed that the illness was bound to the physical or biological realm. Causes would usually stem from a range of factors including other human agents. The last step of the process was determining the solution to the problem.
Once again, this was not restricted to the physical i.e. merely giving the ailing patient some herbs or portions; the Kikuyu medicine man would often require his patients to denounce any evils that they had knowledge of. For instance, in his book facing Mt. Kenya, the author illustrates what goes on in a healing session “Sick man, I have come to chase away your illness. I will chase away the evil spirits which have brought it. Confess the evils you know and those you do not know.
Prepare yourself for you are about to vomit all these evils.” (Kenyatta, 157). After telling the patient what was required of him, the treatment process would then take on a ritualistic aspect in which the patient would be given a Githitu. This would then be placed in the mouth of the patient who would be expected to spit the imaginary contents of the guard into a hole of water in a symbolic depiction of getting rid of any evils within his body. The medicine man would then release the patient by telling him that he was now protected off any evil deeds. A number of aspects stand out when analyzing the latter practice. First, it is clear that traditional healers amongst the Kikuyu were interested in getting to the root cause of the problem so that the illness would not recur again. The ritual described above revolved around protecting the patient from evil intentions of people.
Furthermore, the patient would be given a charm to prevent this kind of evil. These were all unique elements of traditional religions because they sought to reassure patients and hence involve them in the treatment of their own problems (Kenyatta, 170). Additionally, the concern for future well being is also another critical aspect of the healing process amongst the pre-colonial Kikuyu people. There was a linkage made between the past, present and future and this makes their approach to healing quite systematic. Kikuyu medical practices do have some common patterns within them and a look at almost all of them reveals certain outstanding similarities that convey a systematic nature within them.
For instance, there is a high degree of formality in them and prayers made to divinities are often done in order to make diagnoses. Once divinities have been consulted, then a diagnosis is made. Any suffering that the patient is currently undergoing is usually placed in context. In other words, the healers must make statements on why the illness has come upon the patient. This is followed by an intervention by divine forces to solve the problem.
Alternatively, herbs or roots are administered and the person is then assured about his well being. The Kikuyu healing process was such that it involved the patient who must play an active role. He must accept the cause of the illness and denounce the evil forces causing the illness. The Kikuyu people also had a wide range of traditional tools that were essential in driving out evil spirits within their concerned patients. These approaches were usually completed by creating atmospheres of awe especially for spirits as their sayings were not supposed to be questioned. (Kenyatta, 93).
How Was Medicine Used in Ancient Greece
The Ancient Greeks epitomize this ordered nature of medicine quite well. They had temples called Asclepieia dedicated to Asclepius. In these temples, patients were subjected to a thorough process of prognosis, advice and eventual treatment. Patients were first diagnosed by the concerned specialists. They would then be placed in a dream like state which was called enkoimeses. While in that state, the specialist would try and access the spirit world and request intervention into the patient’s diseases. Conversely, some type of surgery would be performed on the concerned patient once in his dream like state.
To achieve that condition, patients would be given a body altering substance like opium. It should be noted that those temples were made in manner that was conducive towards proper healing and therefore contributed tremendously towards the success of their treatment processes. After the treatment process was complete, the cases would then be documented. For instance, archeologists have found some stone boards in which cases of approximately seventy people have been written about the healing nature of the temples. It was found that some aspects such as foreign material and abdominal abscess have been cured as a result of such immense organization. (Knox, 41)
In the Igbo culture, the ordered nature of their medical practices can be reflected through the manner in which healers and diviners were trained. This culture had various specialties; some focused on the spirit world and such matters such as the dibia afa while others were herbalists or medicine men. Such diviners would be required to know the patterns that characterized the soul, spirit and time. Diviners were often expected to supersede the boundaries of the mind by going beyond common human perceptions. When preparing to practice divination. Individuals are required to minimize food and drink.
They were supposed to focus on hearing and receiving messages from divine forces. During training, such persons are required to know how to call the spirits. They must also know what to do with them by questioning them and finding out what is going on with them. Upon completion of the training process, the individuals must go through a celebratory ceremony where the rest of the community is involved. Here, they are affirmed as legitimate leaders who will contribute positively to the community.(ibo ebi feast). Aside from the training process, the manner in which healing was done was also reflective of the deep awareness that diviners had of their assessment.
Diviners knew that they had to be perceived as being wise and their assertions as reliable. Members of the Igbo tribe would often watch and analyze the assertions of Diviners for credibility. When visiting such experts, it was often common for the diviners to make assertions about the past, present and future of their lives. (Achebe, 45) They would need to talk about victories, misfortunes, revenge and in this case health. The latter community often assumed that voices of the oracle were not to be questioned and that they were never mistaken. It was therefore essential for the latter individual’s words to be as accurate as possible.
This means that manifestations of the predictions and assertions were very straight forward ways of heightening the legitimacy of their actions. It should be noted that seers would not necessarily offer healing but would identify the cause of medical complications when it had been presented to them. Their way of healing was to cool down the forces that were involved in the bringing about illness. In this society, there were great healers and ordinary ones. Great diviners were those that possessed the ability to give deep insights into the ikuku (spirits) or those that could pave the way for determining how roots or herbs worked. All these rituals and procedures indicate that there was some level of orderliness in treatment and not just anyone could become a healer.
The Role of Community in Kikuyu & Igbo Medicine
Ancient cultures primarily considered healing as a general concern for their communities. Because of the systemic nature of the Kikuyu culture, it was essential to involve other members of the community in the healing process. For instance, when one went to see the medicine man, they were often required to do so in the company of their kinsmen. Alternatively, some of the members of certain families would actually visit medicine men on behalf of their kin. Even after consultations had been made, then the findings made by the medicine man would be dispensed to the rest of the community. These actions were done in order to reflect the communality of the Kikuyu people.(Kenyatta, 32)
It was also preventive in nature because once the society was aware of such a problem then possible measures could be sought to prevent spread of the illness to other persons or to deal with the causative agent of the disease. It should be noted that in certain circumstances, the ill were required to put out any old fires in their homes and light new ones or were required to shave off their hairs to as to complete the treatment process. Although practices may have little to do with the physical nature of diseases, they played an important psychological role amongst patients who would then be content that they had actually been healed off their sickness.
Some of the rituals carried out by the latter individuals were not just done by one person as they involved the efforts of different members of the community. In deed the communal aspect in medical practices of the Kikuyu can also be reflected during the diagnosis of a problem. For instance in one case, a man had been deeply disturbed psychologically. When he approached the medicine man, it was established that the biggest problem was the spirit of his dead wife.
He was then asked why he had married a second wife and asserted that they had children with his dead wife and the former needed feminine care. The medicine man then invited the spirit of the deceased amongst the patient and his second wife. He then requested for peace from the latter party by asking the spirit of the deceased to forgive the patient from any wrong doings. All the family members were then asked to come and take part in the proceeding ritual which involved dancing, sacrificing an animal and then throwing the food to the ground.
This corrected the divide between the patient and his dead wife’s spirit but most importantly; it involved the rest of the community who were affected by this man’s actions. An outsider would assume that eating the meat of the sacrificed animal was nothing more than a normal meal but to the members of the community, there lay a deeper meaning of healing and restoration. The medicine man has identified a causative factor and this was essential in mending a broken relationship between the patient and his deceased wife.
In Ancient Greece, this communal aspect was not as pronounced as it was in pre-colonial African tribes but it was still quite prevalent. Ancient Greece had doctors who would treat patients and charge them for services offered. However, cities and states intervened heavily in the manner of practice by these Doctors. (Knox, 231)In order to avoid this immense friction with one’s authorities, Doctors would move from city to city. They needed to prove to the public that they were worth their while.
Consequently, most of them would analyze what had happened to their patients in the past, what was happening to them at present and subsequently what would happen to them in the future. To this end, the Doctors were fond of predicting what would happen to patients. The information given to ailing patients would then be transferred to other members of society who would determine the legitimacy of the Doctor’s assertions. In other words, if some of the assertions made by specialists did not come into effect then the Doctor would be blamed for the illness and this implies that the confidence of the community in that practitioner’s work waned dramatically.
Although these Doctors would rarely dispense patents’ information publically like the Kikuyu and Igbo, they still found a way of getting information to the rest of society through word of mouth from patients. To this end, it can be argued that societal approval was critical to medical practices in Ancient Greece and this makes it particularly communal.
The Igbo were perhaps the most communal of the three groups under analysis. When a person became sick in this society, it was generally the concern of the entire society. Most family members would be interested in determining what was ailing their kinsman. Once the illness continued then the concern would spread to the larger society. Close clansmen and community elders in pre-colonial Igbo felt that it was their moral obligation to identify the cause of an illness. This is indeed symbolic of the communality and strong sense of togetherness that members of the Igbo society had. (Achebe, 145)
Witchcraft in the Igbo and Kikuyu Medicine
The biggest criticisms against these forms of practicing medicine have often been that illnesses, misfortunes and ailments were often seen to be caused by superhuman forces and that resorting to witchcraft to heal diseases therefore makes such methods quite shallow. It is therefore essential to understand why these groups were inclined to those methods. As seen earlier, most of these societies were communal in nature; therefore seeking assistance from spiritual forces was another manner of getting to other kinsmen who had died.
The Igbo for example believed that there were a wide range of super human forces operating in their lives and that these groups had to be involved in any aspect including health related complications. Examples of such forces include the oracle, dietetic forces and the Agbara. (Achebe, 27)
The Igbo felt that they had to look for all the remedies that were available to them and of course one of these included seeking divine intervention. The process of looking around for possible solutions was just another method that revealed exactly how critical the process of interrogating and finding truth were to these communities. In other words, they had their own way of unraveling and enquiring into an illness. Health practitioners would therefore not operate independently; as they used the assistance of community members in to find solutions. The employment of spiritual intervention was therefore another way of crisis management for the Igbo community.
This therefore indicates that there is some genuine intellectual reality following the actions of these tribes. As stated earlier as well, relationships formed an important aspect of the Igbo way of life. Consequently, healers were often closely associated with their clients and were genuinely interested in getting to the core of their patient’s problems. One way of carrying this out was through divine interventions.
The Kikuyu also embraced some elements of magic during the diagnosis and treatment phases of illness at most times. Many scholars who have looked into the traditions of the Kikuyu asserted that this inclination was because patients and the general community at large were simply trying to address the reason behind their illness. One of the biggest contrasts between pre colonial medical practices and western medical practices is that the latter only focused on answering the questions ‘what’ and ‘how’.
These questions are primarily scientifically based and do offer individuals immediate solutions, however they ignore one crucial part of the human realm which is answering the question ‘why’. The Kikuyu tradition dealt with this question adequately by resorting to divine or spiritual forces. This implies that every facet of the human existence was duly covered especially the spiritual one. (Kenyatta, 47). Many times, western medicine ignores this aspect of human existence and one must therefore resort to other avenues that can possibly fill this gap.
The Ancient Greeks also relied on religious beliefs within their religious practices. However, this was not as intense as it was in the latter studied African communities. The Asclepios cult has a number of similarities to modern alternative medicines such as Chinese medical practices. Additionally, the ancient Greeks also believed at looking at the causative factors of an illness rather than dealing with external symptoms-this may have been the reason why they resorted to deities as well.
Ancient Greece, pre-colonial Igbo and Kikuyu tribes’ medical practices are quite organized and deep. This was seen by the fact that all of them were rooted in their cultural belief systems. The Kikuyu, Igbo and Ancient Greeks believed in relationships; a lot of concern was given to systems and orders of the world. This is what drove their actions and perceptions. Most traditional healers also used quite systematic methods to deal with patients. Usually an observation would be done then a diagnosis and subsequently a remedy would be offered. Healers were often trained and their assertions on the future would be assessed so as to determine whether they were true.
This also depicts a serious level of organization as well. Even the inclination towards magic or spiritual divinities has a deeper purpose. These traditional societies wanted to get to the root cause of the problem and they did so by using all possible means especially in the spirit world. They also wanted to answer the question ‘why’ an aspect that is not at all prevalent in current practices of modern medicine. Lastly, the communal nature of these societies determined participation and patterns prevalent during the healing process. It is possible to understand why a kinsman would accompany a patient to healers because this depicted communality.
Medical practices in Ancient Greece, pre-colonial Igbo and Kikuyu cultures indicate that there are common patterns which reflect some orderliness. Additionally, because actions were based on inherent cultural beliefs, they carried with them great significance amongst the communities and the healers as well.
Githitu- Traditional Kikuyu guard used for ritualistic purposes.
Aladura- a traditional Igbo healer.
Asclepius- Ancient Greek god whose specialty was healing.
Ibo Ebi- the process of finding out the sources and secrets of suffering among the Igbo.
Ikuku – forces of the wind or the spirits.
Mundu Mugo- traditional Kikuyu healer.
Achebe , Chinua. Things fall Apart. NY: Anchor books, 1959.
Kenyatta, Jomo. Facing Mt kenya. London: Secker and Werburg, 1965.
Knox, Bernard. Illiad of Homer. London: Penguin Classics. 1990.