Ghana is a predominately Christian country, with only a small fraction of the population following “traditional” religious practices. According to a 2010 census, 71 percent of Ghana’s 25 million people identify themselves as Christian, while only 5 percent say they believe in traditional religion. Ghana is also an elder-oriented society, in which kinship plays an important role. Traditional healing by herbalists, fetish priests, and psychics co-exists alongside science-based medicine.
Many Ghanaian Christian religious leaders give a resounding "no" when asked whether "traditional" healing practices are part of their faith, but reliance on healers remains a central issue for the effective delivery of medical care in Ghana.
Convincing people to seek treatment, often available at a low cost from faith-based clinics remains a challenge. In rural areas, the sick can’t afford the high cost of travel to towns and cities where most clinics are located. Traditional healers charge less money; they are also in touch with the social realities of their communities and have a psychotherapeutic rapport with the local people. They successfully create and maintain good reputations, which aids them in their healing practices.
There are other reasons why Ghanaians continue to rely on healers. The medical sociologist, Patrick Twumasi, explains that in the traditional Ghanaian belief system, deviant behavior may result in sanctions from the spiritual world—ill health is one of the punishments inflicted for a breach in social relations. Further, Twumasi reports, the individual’s awareness of his dependence on his kin and ancestors in the search for cures and treatments is linked to the prevalent belief that the health of body is connected to the health of spirit. Many, if not most, diseases are seen as manifestations of supernatural powers. Causal explanations take on a magico-religious tenor.
A Ghanaian health practitioner, who works with the United Nation’s Population Fund, described Ghanaians as "floating" between the traditional practices of visiting healers and science-based medicine, even those who identify as Christian. She also
emphasized the importance of distinguishing between two kinds of traditional medicine: herbal remedies and the voodoo practices of fetish priests or priestesses.
Ghanaians make up the largest African immigrant group in New York City, with a population of roughly 24,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Among them are healers, including the fetish priest, Mr. Kwaku Bonsam, who recently created quite a stir (see the New York Times article referenced below). Ties to the homeland and the comfort of familiar rituals add to the power these healers wield over recent immigrants. Healers are an attractive option to Ghanaians who fear going to the hospital or accepting help from social workers due to their undocumented status, or for whom the financial burden of medical treatment is too great especially without insurance. Immigrants willingly pay healers for purported remedies. Easy targets for exploitation, they go looking for help in traditional places.
In addition to being sensitive to the feelings of vulnerability Ghanaian immigrants may possess, aid organizations and service departments must examine how fetish priests like Mr. Bonsam use traditional beliefs to gain a large following and target these communities with outreach programs accordingly. Understanding the origin of the cultural practices that cause Ghanaians to seek out healers is crucial to assisting these immigrants with education and local support as they assimilate to life in the United States.
Ghana is often lauded as a regional model for its political stability, economic viability, education, healthcare, and other services which far surpass those in neighboring West African countries. However, a sharp contrast exists between the living conditions of the urban middle class and of the people in remote areas of the countryside. Just last year, UNICEF reported that 400,000 children remain out of school due to "irregular" circumstances.
Inequality between men and women persists throughout the region. To improve the social and economic empowerment of Ghanaian women, more steps must be taken to educate them about preventive health care. Religious organizations have led the way in establishing programs to improve education and communication, and in training local workers to deliver basic medical treatment in rural areas, but much work remains to realize true change.
Author, Alice Brown, (A.B., UChicago, 2005) is currently finishing her Ph.D. in French literature at the University of Paris VII Diderot. Her research interests include the cultural and linguistic impacts of France and America on North West Africa.
Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.