More than 330 healers have been registered since Zanzibar, a region of the East African country of Tanzania, passed the Traditional and Alternative Medicine Act in 2009.
According to the government registrar in charge of the registration at the council that records them, Hassan Combo, there are an estimated 2,000 more healers, or mgangas, hoping to register. One of the traditional healers – Bi Mwanahija Mzee – has already registered and she tends to patients at her busy clinic where different women line up in the morning sun cradling their sick children.
The fifty-six-year-old healer said:
“People come here because I help them. I met many patients that went to the hospital first and got no help or the medicine didn’t work”.
“This is my job six days a week for more than 20 years so I do better, know more than them. Patients that come to me don’t die.”
Mzee parents were also traditional healers in the city.
To be registered, mgangas must be aged at least 18 and have at least three years of experience. Also, they must have a recommendation letter from a trained mganga.
A council which consists of 11 members of whom are respected healers, village elders, birth attendants, and lawyers approve the applications every month.
Combo stressed that the government does not try to dictate the healers’ methods. Instead, they work with them on quality control like making sure that the plants used in medicines are of the same standard.
A group facilitated by the registrar’s office links doctors with traditional healers to give them some medical education on specific diseases like hypertension, diabetes, and pregnancy. Also, the mgangas share information with the doctors about patient statistics and needs.
Some healers use herbs, others use scriptures from the Muslim holy book, “the Koran”. However, most people use both, because their belief in supernatural spirits like djinns features strongly.
On the other hand, some healers like Haji Mrisho, mainly give blessings to pregnant women to prevent their unborn babies from being possessed by the spirit. Sheikhs at the Shifaa Herbal clinic read the Koran to cast out the djinns. The djinns are often blamed for many maladies.
Mzee uses a mixture of massages, medicines from roots, herbs and leaves and Koranic verses, which may be written on a plate in red food coloring. The plate is then rinsed, and the water ingested as part of the medicinal regimen.
One of the patients, Fatma Hamad, pointed out that she prefers traditional healers than the overcrowded, underfunded public hospitals where many feel their ailments are not treated properly.
The manager at Makunduchi Hospital, Fatawi Haji Hafidh, the second-largest government-run hospital on Zanzibar’s main island, added that overstretched doctors and nurses may not have the time to see patients or the diagnostic equipment.
For instance, Fatma Hamad took her 2-year-old daughter to the hospital after one of the toddler’s legs became paralyzed during a high fever. However, they were unable to find the problem through X-rays and the hospital recommended for her to seek out a traditional healer.
Mwanahija Mzee massages the child and after a few appointments, her mobility is slowly improving. The mother has taken this as proof that the illness was caused by possession.