Reining in Namibia’s traditional healers

With rising costs of Western medicine, there has been an increased interest concerning the use of traditional medicine, especially in Africa.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that in some Asian and African countries, 80 percent of the population depends on traditional medicine for primary healthcare.
The UN’s World Health Assembly in 2009 adopted a resolution that recognized traditional medicine as one of the resources of primary healthcare services that could contribute to the well-being of people across the globe.
African Traditional Medicine Day is commemorated annually on August 31 in order to raise awareness and the profile of traditional medicine in the African region, as well as to promote its integration into national health systems.
But WHO is concerned by the fact that not many countries have national policies for traditional medicine.
Traditional medicine, which was banned in Namibia before independence, was legalised after independence following the adoption of the primary health care approach by the Ministry of Health and Social Services.
Ever since, Namibia has seen an explosion in the traditional healing practice, with many individuals ‑ mostly foreigners ‑ advertising their services. They claim to cure all types of ailments, including HIV/AIDS.
Lack of proper regulations over the practice of traditional healing in Namibia has led to desperate members of the public being cheated out of thousands of dollars and abused by unscrupulous traditional healers and herbalists.
Some traditional healers have even been suspected of malpractice and putting lives of their patients at risk.
A classic example is that of Angolan national, Bonifatius Mbwale, a traditional healer who was practising his trade in Ohangwena region, north of Namibia.
Mbwale was recently convicted in the Oshakati Magistrate’s Court over several counts of rape charges after luring his female patients into believing that his manhood had “special powers” to cure their ailments.
Mbwale, who has admitted to having HIV/AIDS, was squarely blamed by all the complainants who tested HIV positive for infecting them during 'treatment'.
Traditional medicine practitioners in Namibia, many of whom come from other African countries, are not currently registered and operate without proper guidelines from the Ministry of Health and Social Services.
The Ministry of Health and Social Services has been working on the Traditional Healers Bill that seeks to regulate the practice of traditional medicine practitioners in Namibia.

The Southern Times writer LAHJA NASHUUTA spoke to the ESTER PAULUS, the spokesperson of Namibia’s Health Ministry about the status of the Tradition Healers Bill.
Q: What is the purpose of the Traditional Healers Bill?
A: The purpose of the Bill is to regulate traditional healers through setting up relevant bodies such as the Traditional Health Council of Namibia and provide the election and appointment of the member thereto.
The Bill seeks to regulate the registration of traditional health practitioners and the practising of traditional healing as well as to prohibit the practising of traditional healing without being registered.
The Bill will also provide for different categories of traditional healing and different provisions for the Namibian citizens and persons whom are not Namibian citizens as well as to provide for the establishment of the interim traditional health practitioners Council of Namibia.
Q. When is the Bill envisaged to come into force?
A: The ministry has presented the Bill to Cabinet Committee dealing with legislatures in April 2013.
Although in principle the Bill was approved, minor changes were recommended.
The ministry is now busy with those recommended amendments and will soon resubmit the Bill to Cabinet.
Q: At the moment, how is the practice of traditional healing regulated in Namibia?

A: Currently, traditional doctors are not controlled by any institution, although people come to the Ministry of Health to report cases of services not being rendered by the traditional healers as agreed upon by both parties.
Q: If a member of the public visits a traditional healer, how can they protect themselves from dubious dealings? Is there a register where they can see if this person is registered; what should they look out for? What can they do if they feel the traditional healer has not met the correct criteria?
A: The ministry does not have any legal mandate to charge any traditional healer with misconduct, termination or even approach them to question their way of rendering service to the public due to the absence of laws.
Q: What are some of the set requirements, which have to be met before someone could start to operate as a traditional health practitioner?
A: At present, there are no requirements, but as soon as the Act comes into effect, there will be categories for traditional healers.
They will be required to apply for registration to practice; those that are not registered will not be allowed to practice.
Q: Do you have an estimate of how many traditional healers there are in the country?
A: Unfortunately, the Ministry does not have such statistics.

July 2013
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