The curse of the African witch doctor

Oliver KennettLeg News1 Comment

Firstly a warning… This article contains references to practices which some of you may find disturbing. . Please, do not continue reading if you are easily distressed.

What is a witch doctor?

Witch doctors deal in maladies of the body, the mind and the spirit. They act as both healers and holy men often asking the spirit world for help in human problems and it is estimated that up to 80 % of Africans still consult witch doctors.

Witch doctors, the name having been coined in the 1800’s, perform functions beyond that of your local GP. They are often tutored from birth in the ways of the body, the spirit and the mind. They act as intermediaries in feuds in their community. They provide advice to people who are facing hard decisions and, of course, they treat the sick and injured.

It is easy to see why they are described as witch doctors when such healing seems so baffling to those of us used to western medicine. And the use of bones for divination and possession by ancestors, may make you question its effectiveness.

But suspend your scepticism

Before you pass off witch doctor medicine as superstitious balderdash let us consider why it persists and, more importantly, why it can work.

  • Africa has a system of medicine which has existed for thousands of years.
  • Witch doctors include many homeopathic remedies which the western world is now beginning to recognise as being effective.
  • The animal and plant extracts used for healing are often natural versions of western medicine such as antibiotics and painkillers.
  • The psychological effects of spiritual medicine can be compared with placebos which have been proved to alleviate, if not cure some conditions.

So, no harm done, right? Wrong. Such practices can be dangerous if not fatal for several reasons.

  • A patients health can be put in danger when western and traditional medicines are mixed.
  • Witch doctors are unable to treat diseases such as Ebola which are spread far more rapidly due to transport and trade.
  • It is easier for charlatans to escape detection and exposure due to transport much like the American frontier snake oil salesmen of the 1800s.
  • A lack of knowledge and training can lead to misdiagnosis and dangerous, if not fatal treatment.

Superstition vs. Education

This year the outbreak of Ebola caused a spike in the number of people visiting witch doctors. Though members of the medical community attempted to encourage the sick to visit trained doctors and health workers, the appearance of westerners in hazmat suits in their midst only caused more fear.[/vc_column_text][divider line_type=”No Line” custom_height=”20″][image_with_animation image_url=”3048″ alignment=”center” animation=”Fade In”][divider line_type=”No Line” custom_height=”20″][vc_column_text]There is an ongoing issue with educating the people of Africa in what is beneficial and what is detrimental to their health. There is currently a growing issue of diabetes which a solid understanding of nutrition could avoid. On top of that, the distrust in western medicine and avoiding treatment can ultimately lead to amputations of limbs.

People are reluctant to abandon modes of healing which have treated generations of family members, and, with the insistence of the witch doctor’s themselves that western medicine is ineffective if not dangerous, there is no easy way to present western medicine as a viable and effective option.

The World View

Some witch doctors practice what is known as black magic which can include such horrors as harvesting body parts, sacrifice of children, and live amputations.

Of course, these are in the minority and are fuelled by greed and misplaced beliefs and do not represent traditional healing as a whole for Africa, but it creates a stigma. With a society who still seek traditional treatments over modern medicine and with such horrific practices still occurring, the fact remains, the associations can only be damaging to a region which not only needs, but deserves the Worlds’ empathy.


For the most part witch doctors do little harm and in many cases can help patients with a range of common maladies. It is when the malady is uncommon that the problems arise when there is misdiagnosis and incorrect treatment.

As in so many cases, education is the solution. The people of Africa need to be shown that western medicine can be trusted and can do amazing things. People cannot be forced to relinquish a part of the African culture which has lasted for thousands of years but they can be educated and shown how effective western medicine can be.

It’s an interesting thought that the western world sees many of the practices of shamans, faith healers and spirit guides as alternative medicines whilst in Africa, western medicine is considered the alternative.

Legs4Africa can help. They can provide prosthetic limbs to diabetes sufferers who have lost limbs due to poor diet and poor treatment. They can provide support to people who have lost limbs due to misdiagnosis and incorrect treatment. They can provide limbs to some of the poorest people in the World, who, without the work of Legs4Africa and your support would most probably never walk again.


If you would like to support Legs4Africa in its work rehabilitating amputees in West Africa please support our projects with  donation here, volunteer your time and skills or gift any unused prosthetic legs.
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One Comment on “The curse of the African witch doctor”

  1. An interesting view of ‘witch doctors’ that I hadn’t considered before ….. most of us become aware of the use of witch doctors after their patients have failed to be healed, they have spent a lot of money trying their medicines and then come to the attention of the main-stream (as we see them) agencies …..

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