The role of indigenous healers in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic came under the spotlight at a high profile UKZN-hosted webinar. The panel of experts at the event included UKZN’s Director of the DSI-NRF Centre in Indigenous Knowledge Systems (CIKS), Professor Hassan Kaya; Managing Director of the Umsamo Institute, Mr Siyabonga Mkhize; UKZN’s Head of the Discipline of African Traditional Medicine, Professor Nceba Gqaleni; and traditional indigenous healer, Gogo Phephisile Maseko who serves on the President’s African Indigenous Spiritual Task Team and is an advisor to the DSI-NRF. Talks were facilitated by UKZN’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Humanities, Professor Nhlanhla Mkhize.
Prof. Kaya emphasised how the marginalisation of African indigenous knowledge globally was linked with the marginalisation of African cultures. He focused on the significance of co-knowledge production between knowledge systems and agreed that while Western medicine had advanced it didn’t have all the answers.
He elaborated on the importance of different knowledge holders working together and being inclusive in finding sustainable solutions, saying: “To find sustainable solutions to global challenges we need complementary knowledge systems which include indigenous knowledge. It is culturally arrogant for one knowledge system to dominate others, and in turn, create a hierarchy of knowledge systems in a global knowledge economy.” Prof. Kaya argued that Western medicine could not be used as the standard to measure indigenous knowledge systems, adding that health included the psychological, emotional and spiritual dimensions that could not be healed by medical science alone.
Mr. Mkhize highlighted the importance of establishing a relationship between traditional healers and medical science, focusing on ‘toxicology as an analytical technique needed to delve into traditional herbs and medicines’ and discussing the fundamental step it would play in developing particular drugs and dispersing them in large quantities nationally and internationally. He said gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GCMS) was a process that needed to be put in place for healers and chemists to know exactly what their herbs contained and to protect people from fraudulent herbs and medicine. ‘We aim to create a GCMS library and achieve a goal standard or a reference for a particular herb. Once we have those systems in place the next practical step can be to chase after Intellectual Property (IP) rights.’
Prof. Gqaleni urged Africans to return to their roots in moments of deep crises and to start confronting challenges based on their own systems. He applauded Madagascar and its president for taking indigenous knowledge and claiming it as its own in the fight against COVID-19. Examining the effects of colonialism on health and food security systems, he said: ‘If we want to deal with our health, we need to return to our land.’ He expressed his disappointment at the government’s ‘failure to consult with traditional healers during the lockdown period,’ but said he was happy South Africa had offered to assist Madagascar with scientific research.
Gogo Maseko encouraged the government to invest in traditional medicine and research in that field. ‘It’s so unfortunate that in Africa we have to remind our government of who we are and our value as traditional healers,’ Gogo Maseko explained. She added that as a multi billion rand industry, traditional medicine needed to develop its capacity to be able to mass-produce and she urged scientists to support the call.