A partnership between traditional healers and an NGO that advocates for the rights of the LGBTQI+ community has increased the availability of health services for a community in Pietermaritzburg.
Three years ago, Thabani Duma, an intervention facilitator at the Pietermaritzburg Pop Inn clinic run by the Aurum Institute, connected with traditional healers in the area after a run-in with a difficult patient who didn’t want to not on antiretroviral therapy (ART).
“The patient had come to our mobile clinic during an outreach intervention. He asked to be tested for HIV and tested positive. When we asked him to introduce him to ARVs, he refused. He told us that he was a traditional person and that he would use traditional medicine to cure his ailment,” Duma explained.
It was then that he reached out to traditional healers in the region, visiting communities and interacting with traditional healers about the importance of having a referral system that included them.
He said they thought using traditional healers would help win over people who were against Western medicine and preferred to use only traditional medicine, even for diseases that could not be cured by such methods.
Their first move was to invite traditional healers, sit down with them and show them how they thought they could be helpful in stopping the spread of HIV in the region, especially among key populations.
“The response was overwhelming because traditional healers also told us they had problems with clients who presented with various symptoms, including those of STIs and HIV/AIDS, but insisted that they did not didn’t want to go to the clinic or the hospital because of their tradition. beliefs,” Duma said.
This gave rise to workshops organized with traditional healers, where they learned about HIV/AIDS, the symptoms to look out for and the importance of counselling. Traditional healers were then asked to refer patients with symptoms of STIs and HIV/AIDS.
“Dismissals are currently in progress. We created a great relationship with traditional healers and that helped us reach people we couldn’t have reached,” Duma said.
The clinic organizes workshops for traditional healers where they can voice their concerns and receive advice.
Sibusiso Makhathini, the project coordinator at the Pietermaritzburg Pop Inn clinic, said they hoped to introduce other aspects such as condom distribution and HIV testing into the program.
A huge difference
“In the future, we plan to have a stronger relationship with [traditional healers] because we saw a huge difference between now and the pre-2020 period where we had a problem initiating some of our clients on ART. We tested the client positive and the client refused to receive western medicine because he believed in traditional medicine.
“Having this relationship has ensured that our clients who need to be started on ART are initiated on time and those at risk of HIV are given PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis] in time before they can get infected,” Makhathini said.
They still had a few programs they wanted to introduce into traditional healers’ consulting rooms, such as HIV counseling and testing. Makhathini said they started distributing condoms in traditional healers’ consulting rooms, but this was halted when they ran out of condoms.
“When we receive more stock of condoms, our plan is to do packaging for [traditional healers] for them to continue distributing condoms. We want most of our products to be distributed in consulting rooms. This includes providing them with gloves, masks and other items they may need.
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“We also want to introduce more training, like [the traditional healers] requested intensified training in HIV counseling and testing. So we plan to start this training from the start of our new fiscal year in October,” Makhathini said.
Makhosi Mbuyiseni Duma, a traditional healer who joined the program last year, said some “people believe in using traditional medicine and think clinics and hospitals cannot help them. It is something that has been ingrained in them because of their upbringing. These people need us to advise them.
“As a traditional healer, I think I’m in a better position to tell my clients that I can give them herbs, but they can’t cure HIV/AIDS. It is therefore my duty to direct them towards a structure that can help them.
Many patients tell them that their ancestors lived a long time and were able to cure many diseases using herbs without visiting health facilities.
“We have to remind them that diseases like HIV/AIDS and some STIs didn’t exist back then. That is why their ancestors could only survive through traditional medicine,” Duma said.
“There are a lot of people who come to us who are LGBTQI+ and haven’t told anyone. Some of them are HIV positive and some have STIs. Direct communication with Pop Inn allowed them to get help for their customers faster.”
Duma said many people in the LGBTQI+ community are also in the traditional healing field. Some of these people were “disowned by families before they could have a clear understanding of their sexuality; being part of this program has also helped them”.
Romeo Ndlovu (34) from Thembalihle, who started as a client of the Pop Inn clinic before joining the traditional healers initiative, says the program has helped him get help from his clients that he doesn’t could not have brought them.
“Now, whenever people come to me with symptoms of HIV/AIDS, I tell them that there is nothing my herbs can do to help them. I then convince them to visit the Pop Inn clinic. Some go to the facility, but others never come back to say whether they went or not,” Ndlovu said.
Some of their patients come to them when they are on the verge of death and insist that they are sick from witchcraft and other traditionally related problems when in fact they have HIV/AIDS.
He has gone the extra mile to ensure his patients find out their status as soon as possible by offering counseling and HIV testing kits.
“I believe that I have to counsel my clients as a traditional healer and convince them to get tested for HIV. When I have HIV test kits, I ask them to take them home and test them,” Ndlovu said.
A transgender patient (22), from Edendale, who wished to remain anonymous, said she would have died if her sangoma had not referred her to the Pop Inn clinic.
She said she started going to sangoma in February last year due to a severe outbreak of hemorrhoids. Her situation was so serious that she no longer ate for fear that her condition would worsen.
“The sangoma gave me traditional herbs and I used them, but the hemorrhoids would go away and come back. In March last year, he advised me to take an HIV test and suggested that I go to the clinic. HIV was the last thing on my mind. Even though I didn’t protest when he suggested the test, I still didn’t believe I needed to do it. It took me a while before I could test. Eventually I tested and the results came back positive. If I hadn’t gone to the clinic, I would have died,” she said. SM/MC