The spirit world is prominent in Africa. Many believe their ancestors have a strong influence on their day-to-day life. So when people encounter problems—a sick child, conflicts between family members, or even just bad luck—there may be a rift with the spirits of their ancestors.
"Our ancestors can become angry because we don't respect them," said Hilario Muthembe, a local activist working with Oxfam America's partner MULEIDE in the bustling suburb of Jorge Dimitrov outside Maputo, Mozambique. The solution? Consult a traditional healer, who can help. "A small ceremony can show we respect them," Muthembe said, "and can cure the problem."
"Traditional healers play a number of very important roles in traditional society," said anthropoligist Gordon Chavanduka, president of the Zimbabwe Traditional Healer Association. "Firstly, they are the medical experts. Secondly, they are the cultural experts, and regard themselves as the guardians of their culture.
"They are also counselors, in all issues. Even the chiefs and headmen, who are the political leaders, almost all of them have a traditional healer as an advisor, to assist them in their governing."
Susan LeClerb Madlala, an anthropologist at the University of KwaZulu Natal, says that people find a certain satisfaction in consulting a traditional healer, who can not only treat the immediate illness or problem, but provide an explanation of the ultimate source of the problem itself, something a medical doctor can't do.
"Let's say you are hanging your wash on the line behind your house, and a snake bites you. Well, a medical doctor will treat the snake bite, but he can't answer a lot of important questions: Why did the snake bite you? Why was it at your house? Who sent that snake?"
Given the prominence of the spirit world in many areas, it is essential for rights organizations like MULEIDE to acknowledge the role of traditional healers in communities where they seek to intervene. Showing them respect and working with them, instead of dismissing them as "witch doctors," will help make the gradual changes in society that can lead to better respect for women, and recognition of their rights as full citizens, protected in Mozambique's Family Law.