Today’s columnist, Dr Mary Wren: Spiritual realm of health

Roseanna the witchdoctor  at Matopos Hills in Zimbabwe.
Roseanna the witchdoctor at Matopos Hills in Zimbabwe.
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Since visiting Africa a number of years ago now, I have been fascinated with how each culture views health.

Generally, all we know is the culture we live in and so we think that is the right and only way to treat illness.

We presume we are right and that western medical training, technology and practice is superior.

When I spent my medical elective with the Zulus in South Africa, and again when I visited Nigeria, I was exposed to a different culture which placed spiritual causes of health at the forefront.

I saw people who didn’t have enough money to attend the local hospital and so they would go to the local church.

There, many were healed as they were prayed for. Some would also go to the witchdoctors who they believe have more power over the spiritual world.

They believe that illness is often a result of a curse and so they will go to a witchdoctor, as a sort of divine electrician, to sort out the problem.

So, in large parts of the world, people believe the spiritual world is real and take it into account in all parts of their lives, including health.

Now, this approach can bring miracles and amazing stories of healing, such as the man I spoke with who had been shot in the back and paralysed two years earlier and who could now walk again after Jesus healed him.

It can also bring problems, because sometimes people will put their hope in the witchdoctor or the spiritual world and neglect to take any notice of advice of western medicine.

In the recent ebola outbreak, people died because they didn’t listen to the advice to isolate people – instead they took sick people to the witchdoctor and more people died as a result.

Just as in Africa western medicine is treated with suspicion, so here in the West, spiritual causes of illness and spiritual answers are written off.

I think we can all learn from each other. I have seen people get well both ways.

Most medical schools in America now teach their students to take a spiritual history from patients and encourage them to include the spiritual dimension in their care of people as appropriate.

It is wrong to enforce our own spiritual views on others, but it is also wrong to enforce our lack of spiritual belief on others.

In our multicultural society there is much we can learn.