South Africa's traditional healers join fight against Aids

A government programme enhances support offered by witchdoctors

'Doctor' Lela Bathobele's surgery has no magazines in the waiting room - only a broken couch and dozens of old peanut butter jars filled with dried animal entrails, tree bark and the brewed potions she uses to treat her patients.

With South African health services buckling under the weight of Aids, witchdoctors like Ms Bathobele are doing a brisk trade. For many, they are the only source of hope in coping with a disease that has swamped conventional medical services.

Each day patients arrive at Ms Bathobele's hut in the hills above the seaside town of Knysna, bringing a few dollars in payment, a chicken, or anything they can trade for treatment. Many who come for her help are dying from Aids.

'People come to me because they have nowhere else to go,' she says as she deftly grinds a large root into a pulp. 'Very sick patients need me for food and a bed. Their families do not want them and many nights I have dying people sleeping on the floor of my house.'

Now, she will get help in caring for her community as she joins the ranks of thousands of traditional healers being trained by the South African government to help manage the overwhelming Aids crisis.


The government's Aids Directorate, a unit within the health department, has employed two full-time witchdoctors. Their job is to teach healers such as Ms Bathobele to recognise the symptoms of Aids, and send patients to medical doctors for treatment.

Once a sick person has received conventional care, they return to their healer for counselling, herbal remedies and prayer.

It is not just the government that has hit upon conscripting witchdoctors. A non-governmental organisation, the Durban-based Aids Foundation, has already trained 6,000 traditional healers to take on the disease.

Aids Foundation executive director Debbie Mathew says witchdoctors reach communities who harbour a lingering distrust of conventional medicine. 'People place great value in traditional medicine. Even if they go to a western doctor, they still insist on a visit to their traditional healer,' she says. 'The ill do whatever it takes to make sure their ancestors are satisfied.'


Initially the Foundation's instructors feared witchdoctors would shy away from the sexually explicit elements of their training but the healers overcame their initial cultural shock with ease.

Putting an end to the 'virgin cure' - a widespread belief that sex with a virgin will heal Aids - is perhaps the greatest contribution witchdoctors can make. The myth is held partly to blame for the high incidence of child rape in South Africa, as children, and sometimes even babies, are sought out for sex by ill and desperate men in a futile attempt to shake their disease.


Traditional healer associations have begun to actively campaign for their members to inform communities that the 'cure' does not exist. In time, it is hoped, the practice will be completely eradicated.

The growing number of Aids orphans is another challenge witchdoctors deal with regularly. Often the local medicine man or woman is the only person to whom an orphaned child can turn.

'These children came to my hut with their parents,' says Ms Bathobele. 'Now they come to me looking for help after their parents have died. They will live with me until I can find relatives to take them in.'


In time she hopes her role will involve more than dealing with the devastation of Aids. Her Holy Grail would be to dispense anti-retroviral drugs, the only medication capable of slowing the disease. 'I want to give muti [medicine] that can stop this killing,' she says.