Pietermaritzburg NGO links traditional and Western medicine to reach key populations
Embracing traditional healers has helped spread awareness about HIV treatment and prevention at a Pietermaritzburg health facility.
A partnership between traditional healers and an NGO advocating 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, linked up with traditional healers in the area after a run-in with a difficult patient who did not want to take antiretroviral therapy (ART).
“The patient had visited our mobile clinic during an outreach. He asked to test for HIV and tested positive. When we asked to initiate him on ARVs he refused. He told us that he was a traditional person and would use traditional medicine to heal his ailment,” explained Duma.
This is when he reached out to traditional healers in the area, by going out into communities and interacting with traditional healers about the importance of having a referral system that includes them.
He said they believed roping in traditional healers would help win over people who were against Western medicine and preferred to use only traditional medicine, even for ailments 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 believed they could be of assistance in the fight against the spread of HIV in the area, especially among key populations.
“The response was overwhelming because traditional healers also told us that they were having problems with clients who came displaying various symptoms, including those of STIs and HIV/Aids, but insisted they did not want to go to the clinic or hospital because of their traditional beliefs,” said Duma.
This gave birth to workshops that were held with traditional healers, where they were informed about HIV/Aids, symptoms to look out for and the importance of counselling. Traditional healers were then asked to refer patients with STIs and HIV/Aids symptoms.
“Referrals are currently happening. We have created a great relationship with traditional healers and this has helped us to reach people we wouldn’t have been able to reach,” said Duma.
The clinic hosts workshops for traditional healers where they are able to express their concerns and receive guidance.
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 to the programme.
A huge difference
“Going forward, we are looking into having a stronger relationship with [traditional healers] because we have seen a huge difference between now and the time before 2020 when we had a problem with initiating some of our clients on ART. We would test the client positive and the client would decline being given Western medication because they believed in traditional medicine.
“Having this relationship has helped ensure that our clients who need to be put on ART are initiated on time and that those at risk of HIV are given PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis] on time before they can be infected,” said Makhathini.
They still had some programmes that they wanted to introduce in the consultation rooms of traditional healers, such as HIV counselling and testing. Makhathini said they had initiated condom distribution in the traditional healers’ consultation rooms, but this was stopped 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 with condom distribution. We want to see most of our commodities being distributed in consulting rooms. This includes providing them with gloves, masks and other items they might need.
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“We also want to introduce more training, as [the traditional healers] have asked for intensified training in counselling and testing for HIV. So we are looking at starting that training immediately when we start our new financial year in October,” said Makhathini.
Makhosi Mbuyiseni Duma, a traditional healer who joined the programme last year, said that some “people believe in using traditional medicine and think clinics and hospitals cannot help them. This is something that has been embedded in them because of their upbringing. Such people need us to counsel them.
“As a traditional healer, I feel that I’m in a better position to tell my clients that I can give them herbs, but they cannot cure HIV/Aids. It is then my duty to refer them to a facility that can help them.”
Many patients tell them that their forefathers lived long and were able to cure many illnesses using herbs without going to health facilities.
“We have to remind them that illnesses such as HIV/Aids and some STIs did not exist at that time. That is why their forefathers were able to survive only on traditional medicine,” said Duma.
“There are many people who come to us who are LGBTQI+ and have not told anyone about it. Some of them are HIV-positive and others have STIs. Having direct communication with Pop Inn has made it easier for them to get their clients help quicker.”
Duma said many people in the LGBTQI+ community are in the traditional healing field as well. Some of these people were “disowned by families before they could have a clear understanding of their sexuality; being a part of this programme has helped them as well”.
Romeo Ndlovu (34) from Thembalihle, who began as a client of Pop Inn clinic before joining the traditional healers’ initiative, says the programme has helped him get his clients the help he wouldn’t have been able to give them.
“Now, whenever people come to me displaying symptoms of HIV/Aids I advise 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 if they went or not,” said Ndlovu.
Some of their patients come to them when they are on the verge of dying and insist that they are sick due to witchcraft and other traditionally linked issues when they actually have HIV/Aids.
He has gone the extra mile in ensuring that his patients find out their status as early as possible by offering them counselling and HIV testing kits.
“I believe that I need to counsel my clients as a traditional healer and to convince them to get tested for HIV. When I have HIV testing kits, I ask them to take them home and test,” said Ndlovu.
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 the sangoma in February last year because of a serious outbreak of haemorrhoids. Her situation was so dire that she was no longer eating for fear of the condition being exacerbated.
“The sangoma gave me traditional herbs and I used them, but the haemorrhoids would disappear and come back. In March last year, he advised me to test for HIV and suggested that I visit the clinic. HIV was the last thing on my mind. As much as I didn’t protest when he suggested the test I still didn’t believe that I needed to do it. It took some time before I could test. Eventually, I tested and the results came back positive. Had I not given and gone to the clinic I would have died,” she said. DM/MC