In the fight against AIDS, a UMKC professor pays a visit to some African witch doctors.

Into Africa 

In the fight against AIDS, a UMKC professor pays a visit to some African witch doctors.

Kathy Goggin kept the notebook where she could read it out of the corner of her eye. For three days, she'd been practicing the name — Mhlongo, Mhlongo, Mhlongo. Mispronouncing it now would be perceived as a sign of disrespect, and she could forget about doing her research in South Africa. She was sitting in a conference room full of African doctors and traditional healers, all of them waiting for Mhlongo.

His name didn't roll easily off a Westerner's tongue. On Goggin's cheat sheet was a phonetic spelling: mum-thlo-go.

Goggin is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She'd been in Tygerber, a northern suburb of Cape Town, South Africa, for almost three months, preparing for a clinical trial of an indigenous plant called sutherlandia. The country's traditional healers use it to treat cancer and AIDS patients. It was supposed to prevent the rapid loss of muscle mass, but so far no one had subjected the plant to a study under Western research standards. Goggin was working with a team of Western-trained researchers, along with two psychologists from UMKC whose plan was to give the plant to HIV patients and measure any signs of improvement.

Waiting for Mhlongo was a nightmare for Goggin. Because of a learning disability, she can't distinguish some differences in word pronunciations. She knew that if she couldn't say Mhlongo's name right, she would be seen as an arrogant American: someone who is nice until she gets what she wants. Especially doing HIV work in South Africa, where a torrent of grant money — and the prestige that comes with working in the world's most infection-ravaged region — has drawn a number of scientists looking to make names for themselves.

There are reasons that researchers want to work with traditional healers who attribute most illnesses to the influence of ancestral spirits. In America, they would be called witch doctors. But to South Africans, they are respected and government-accredited. To find cures, they read patterns in animal bones thrown to the ground. Their remedies involve mixtures of herbs and bones, sometimes the sacrifice of a cow.

Because they see more patients, traditional healers know more than university researchers about infection trends and how people deal with illness. Although a visit to the traditional healer in some cases costs twice as much as seeing a doctor trained in Western medicine, most Africans will save their money for the healer's reading. The ones who do go to a hospital are still likely to consult a healer. The sight of a man carrying candles and a sacrificial chicken is as common in a South African hospital as someone praying over a Bible in a U.S. hospital.

And healers have 2,000 years of the most primitive clinical trials to draw from: Go into the wilderness, find something and feed it to your patient. If it kills him, don't do it again. If it helps, find more.

Goggin's work has been much more measured. For 20 years, she has worked in AIDS trials and outreach programs. At UMKC, she heads the HIV/AIDS Research Group and, between teaching classes, studies how patients maintain their quality of life and adapt to chronic and terminal diseases, and how depression and anxiety affect HIV cases and their treatment. Most recently, she has studied ways to help AIDS patients adhere to their often difficult medication regimens.

That's how, in January, Goggin ended up in a conference room at the University of the Western Cape surrounded by healers willing to be involved in a new study, ready to plead her case for closing the distance between traditional healers and Western scientists. Makhosi Mhlongo was the president of the KwaZulu-Natal traditional healers council. A tall African with graying hair, in Western dress except for a sacrificial animal skin around his wrist, so respected that everyone stood when he entered the room (followed by three bodyguards — two of whom were his sons), Mhlongo had already publicly stated that he was, at best, dubious about Westerners conducting clinical trials on a remedy used by healers. If Mhlongo disapproved after this meeting, healers would refuse to participate in the trials. Goggin would have no chance to study their methods — or get the healers to work with Africa's Western-trained doctors to manage the AIDS crisis.

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