African Healing, Old as the Motherland

African Healing, Old as the Motherland

As told by Dr. John Aden, the Volunteer Executive Director of the African/African American Historical Society & Museum of Allen County (AAAHSM):

I’m the Volunteer Executive Director of the African/African American Historical Society and Museum of Allen County.  I teach the Introduction to African History and the Intro to Chinese Philosophy courses at Canterbury High School, because I have a doctorate in history from Indiana University Bloomington, with a focus on Africa and Chinese history as my second field.

When I teach this to my kids, I always impress upon them that, Hollywood tends to present Africa healers as witch doctors.  That’s not a term that schools use because it was created in the colonial period.  It was designed to denigrate African knowledge in science and to demean people of African origin.  [Images of] a person is saying some nonsensical incantations over some bones or some other type of preparation.

The African Studies program at I.U. was the top ranked program in the country [by the time I graduated].  Practically everyone I knew won a Fulbright Scholarship, including myself, to study African regions and histories.

My friend Frank [from I.U.’s African Studies program] wanted to show a video; he didn’t know what to do with it: A young man walks into a snake bite healer’s home in Tanzania and he approaches master healer wanting to learn the art of snake bit healing.  In the yard, there are like 50 wooden pins with chicken coop wire; inside each one is deadly poisonous snake.

When you are healer you are typically begin as an apprentice, sometime as young as five years old in some societies. The young man in the video was probably in his high teens, early 20s.

The healer asks him if he’s ever been bitten by a poisonous snake before and did he survived it?  (The second part is sort of funny.  Everybody’s laughing.)  In African healing traditions, to become a healer, you have face the thing that you are trying to heal.  Empathy is really important for you to heal and work with other people. You have to know what the experience is like yourself.  The healer says ‘I will train you but only after you survive the deadly snake bite.’ 

He tells the young man to pick one snake, that it will bite you twice after wrapping around your arm, and after, he will slip the snake back into the pin.

The young man starts to reach for the pin and the old man says hold on. He produces a vial that has a paste in it and tells the young man to swallow some of and asks ‘what’s going to happen to me.’  The healer told him how the poison would move from his hand to his armpit, and how the poison would stop once it reaches his armpit, before it reaches the lymph nodes, the superhighway for fluids moving through the body.  But the poison will stop at the middle part of your upper arm and slowly start to drain back down.  His arm would swell up to the size of a grapefruit for a week and would be sick for weeks. Come back, and I will train you. 

So the young man reaches in the pin and everything happens the way the master healer had articulated. I asked my friend Frank what happened to the young man; he became an apprentice under this master healer.

This is one of the narratives when I help students better understand health and healing traditions in Africa; there is a lot of precolonial knowledge that exist in African society. The transatlantic slave trade and colonialism tried to diminish that amount of knowledge that people possess.  The fact that it’s still present suggests the power and endurance of African traditions.  Not all healing traditions are successful. 

There are a lot of western medicine traditions. Africans were using hypodermic needles deep in ancient times.  Africans were engaging in complex brain surgeries at very early dates in human history.  Africans were doing some stuff that was really fascinating.  But [those stories] don’t circulate through our society.