Liberian Herbalists Attribute Economic Hardship to Ancestral Spirit


Monrovia – Traditional healers in Liberia say the nation is experiencing an economic crisis not because of mismanagement of the leadership or international sanctions but because ancestral spirits that aided freedom fighters during the country’s liberation struggles are very angry.

Report by Bettie K. Johnson Mbayo, [email protected]

“All this discord that is taking place in our country, the scarcity of money and hunger, are a result of bad anger,” says Sophia Zeogar, chairwoman of the Bassa Traditional Healers Association (BTHA).

Cultural rituals and the traditional mediums who perform them have been neglected since 1847 when Liberia gained independence from Britain, Zeogar says.

“The new leadership was supposed to host a thanksgiving ceremony to thank the ancestors and spirits for guiding and protecting the freedom fighters in the war,” she says. “That never happened.”

In Bassa tradition, it is believed that ancestral spirits choose a medium within their bloodline or clan through which to relay instructions normally to avoid or rectify impending disasters.

The healers also provide traditional herbs and roots that serve as medication to help produce a positive result.

Most authentic healers are living in poverty, she says. Norms within the Bassa tradition do not allow traditional healers to charge for their services.

Healers and mediums are mandated by custom and by BTHA regulations to assist people regardless of whether they can pay for such services.

In addition, many clans have turned to Christianity, and some that have done so have abandoned traditional Bassa healing practices.

“Look at the house I live in,” Zeogar says. “I am the chairperson, but look at where I am living. We need places to set up our practices so we can heal people truthfully.” 

Traditional spiritualist Sophia Zeogar keeps herbs she uses to help people in the living room of her home in Compound one, Grand Bassa. 

Spiritual healer Grace Paygar, who uses herbs to treat cancer, asthma, diabetes and other illnesses, also remarked on the lack of dignity accorded to healers in today Liberia. 

She struggles to fulfill her mission due to lack of funding and, like Zeogar, believes the government should support them. National support and further acknowledgment of traditional healers and spiritualists can only help as Liberia moves to staunch economic turmoil, they say.

“We are a class of people looked down upon by today’s society,” she says.

“As such, usually the underprivileged of society seek my services. Just look at the house I live in, how many people would want to be treated in a shack like this?”

Doctor Bobo Kargbo, another traditional healer in Monrovia said “ – It is our traditional belief, as herbalist, that people do not die.”

“We just move from this physical world to a spiritual one,” he says.

“And we believe that every bad thing that happens to us in our lives can be traced to a person. Their anger and hurt may cause our misfortune. Every misfortune has a spiritual explanation and a root.” 

According to him, he leaves Breweville and run a sidewalk area where plastics of herbs and traditional medicines are opened along with bottle filled with different colors. 

He narrated that at age 7, he watched his dad treating sick persons something that encouraged him to also practice to succeed his dad. 

The war could not have been won without the help of the ancestral spirits and the interaction between the mediums and spirits, Kargbo says. 

Also known as Alternative Health Providers, herbalists were criticized during the peak of the Ebola outbreak in Liberia when infected people sought treatment from these Traditional Healers (THs), and when they couldn’t healed these ailing individuals, it created perceptions that herbalists also contributed to the spread of the Ebola virus. 

Liberia has serious deficit in the number of medical doctors with a World Health Organization (WHO) statistics showing that there are approximately 0.5 doctors and other health practitioners per 1000 persons living in the country, something considered far below the WHO standard which is put at 80% of the total health care coverage. 

This prompted the Director of Culture and Native Affairs at the Ministry of Internal Affairs to reemphasize the relevance of integrating traditional medicine with the country’s biomedical health sector. 

Chief Jukon Kuyon says this will help to save more lives, considering the shortage of doctors in the country. 

“If the alternative medicine hospital can be built alongside the conventional medicine hospital like JFK, Jackson F. Doe Hospital or Phebe hospital…, with the information desk officer and the various traditional health practitioners, it will help solve a lot of medical problems in the country,” explains Chief Kuyon.  

Chief Kuyon believes this will prevent individuals from seeking treatment from the wrong herbalists and will offer a chance for patients that are unable to be treated by medical doctors. 

“Let the medical doctors and the herbalists be side-by-side so that when doctors cannot determine that a sickness is a conventional sickness, they will give it (the case) to alternative health providers that will be right nearby and it will help to save lives,” he added.

The Director of Culture and Native Affairs at the Ministry of Internal Affairs added that constructing the necessary facilities at medical centers in the country will ensure THs that are spread throughout rural communities come together and be guided.

Chief Kuyon is confident this approach will curtail previous incidences that have led individuals to uncertified herbalists in the country. 

There have been several calls for Liberia’s health sector to partner with traditional herbalists in finding alternative medications especially when many rural Liberians continue to remain accustom to the practice. 

“This will obviously help avert some of the complications hindering public health care in our country especially with concerns arising from how some of these herbalists conduct their treatments,” 

Chief Kuyon added: “If any of their medicine can save one or two, three patients we can start changing their medicine into conventional medicine also. But because we have been demonized some people are shying away from our sciences but our science is one of the best.” 

In December 2014, the Ministry of Health launched a five-year plan on the usage of herbs at all health centers across the country as part of its new health system but the full realization of this initiative is far fetched. 

The plan, according to the MoH Division of Complementary Medicine, will run until 2019. 

A recent research by a Non-Governmental Organization, Platform for Dialogue and Peace (P4DP) shows that Traditional Healers (THs) are potential allies in building Liberia’s resilient health sector considering their role. 

The study recommends that the setting up of herbal treatment medical unit at all major medical centers to allow smooth collaborations and referrals to ensure lives are saved. 

The Chief is also calling on the WHO, the Ministry of Health, P4DP and the Ministry of Internal Affairs to work along with certified THs to initiate the program. 

The P4DP study also suggests that integrating herbalists within the health sector, educating them about public health diseases, and initiating a policy for the preservation and conversation of herbal medicine will reduce their secret or uninformed operations which can be detrimental to public health, while also stressing the significance of collecting data on THs to support the building of their capacity.  

In April 1986, the Liberian legislature passed a bill into law to create the division of Complementary Medicine at the Ministry of Health which is responsible for certifying traditional healers in the country. 

The renewed calls for the comprehensive integration of herbal treatment with biomedicine in Liberia come less than two years after the deadliest Ebola outbreak in history hit West Africa when lack of trust in Liberia’s health sector coupled with an already porous system worsened the situation. 

Although Liberia’s health policy encourages traditional treatment, it is far behind considering the strides other West African nations have made in the integration of the two kinds of treatments. 

According to WHO, 80% of Africans use traditional medicine, and in Ghana research shows that over 70% of Ghanaians depend on herbal treatment. 

According to the African Research Institute, the Ghanaian Government certified and recognized institutions involved with the testing of herbal medicine while some government health facilities have already integrated herbal medicine with biomedical treatments. 

In Cameroon, the country’s central government surveyed and licensed traditional doctors as part of a global strategy, led by the World Health Organization.

 The aim was for traditional doctors to provide basic biomedical services in rural areas which is yielding significant progress.