An increasing number of Zimbabweans are turning to traditional healers for inexpensive medical care as health costs continue their upward trajectory.
Under-resourced state hospitals and clinics charge around Zim $20,000 (US 8 cents) per consultation, but the cost at better-equipped private hospitals is around Zim $500,000 (US $20) and patients can quite easily run up a bill of Zim $15 million (US $615) in a week.
Gordon Chavhunduka, the director of the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers' Association (ZINATHA), said prohibitive medical costs had made it difficult for the poor to access healthcare and most government and private hospitals demanded cash upfront.
"We have, for a long time, been telling the government that they cannot go it alone in the delivery of health. There has been a lot of tension between the government and us over our usefulness, and it is encouraging that they are seeing the light now," Chavhunduka told IRIN.
The authorities have been sceptical about traditional herbalists, raising concerns that their medicines were not properly administered nor scientifically proven, despite the Traditional Medical Practitioners Act, which was aimed at regulating the work of 'n'angas' (Shona for traditional healer), being passed some 25 years ago.
Minister of Health David Parirenyatwa recently publicly acknowledged that Zimbabwe has been slow in incorporating traditional healers into mainstream healthcare delivery.
"This is one of the few remaining countries in the [southern African] region that does not have a proper council representing traditional healers and their operations," Parirenyatwa told a gathering of traditional healers recently.
He added that the ministry of health had appointed a director of traditional medicine, who would focus on regulating the work of traditional healers.
Traditional medicine experts said the formal recognition of healers by government was long overdue, but warned that tighter control was needed to rein in those using unorthodox methods to treat patients.
ZINATHA has already established a team of health inspectors who carry out nationwide checks on registered traditional healers to ensure that they conform to the organisation's regulations.
Ironically, the difficulties facing Zimbabwe's healthcare sector have brought a business boom to many traditional leaders.
Sekuru Chamunorwa Masamba, 60, a registered ZINATHA practitioner, is working long hours in Harare's Rugare suburb, where he specialises in infertility and mental illness, and claims he can help people find jobs.
Even people living with HIV are among his patients, but he points out that while he administers herbs to deal with the symptoms of the virus, he does not have a cure.
"I wake up at around 4 o'clock in the morning and begin attending to my patients at 5 o'clock and usually go to rest at midnight - there is always a long queue of people who come to me with different complaints, with some of them sleeping at my house either because they come from outside Harare or want to be attended to early.
"Five years ago, patients would come in trickles, but these days I am kept busy throughout the day and people sometimes request me to work throughout the night, but I am getting old and I also need to rest," Sekuru Masamba told IRIN.
He often gets requests to travel outside the capital city and says even foreigners approach him for help.
"I charge a consultation fee of Zim $20,000 and ask my patients to pay me according to their capability. Even though I don't ask for much, I also attract rich people and have been called to attend to sick people in Botswana and South Africa," said Masamba, who has been practicing as a traditional healer for the past 40 years.
Stella Moyo, 34, a teacher who had travelled from the small town of Chegutu about 100 km from Harare, told IRIN that she decided to consult Masamba after doctors failed to cure her persistent headaches.
"I visited several doctors but they could not help me, even though I spent a lot of money hoping that the headaches would be cured - I would be admitted in hospitals for weeks. But what surprises me is that the doctors said they could not identify what was wrong and, in some cases, they did not even have pills to relieve my pain.
"I have been here for a week and I feel much better, and what is encouraging is that Sekuru Masamba has told me that I will pay him only when my problem has been solved," Moyo said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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