The Sunday Mail
Dr Christine Peta
THE long-term nature of disability affords persons with disabilities and their families adequate time to search for different kinds of diagnosis and modes of treatment.
This is often prompted by a fallacious belief that disabilities that include congenital (from birth) visual or hearing impairment or albinism can be cured.
People’s beliefs about the kinds of treatment that are likely to work or not for them are largely influenced by their cultural beliefs and perceptions of the world, including their own diagnosis of the disability within the family context.
Driven by an immense fear of disability, most African families consider it important to first of all establish why disability has visited them or members of their family.
The first port of call is often the traditional healer, who is believed to possess the power to establish causes of disability, as well as to ultimately cure it.
The most common traditional causes of disability in Zimbabwe are said to be evil spirits, witchcraft and breaking of traditional customs or taboos.
Drawing from such beliefs, traditional healers focus on causes of disability in relation to both the person’s body and their entire social background.
In such a context, disability is considered deeply rooted in people’s relations with their physical locations, ancestors, families, bride price, taboos and witchcraft.
In many cases, the modern healthcare system may progressively take over the upkeep of a person with disabilities. However, this happens only after the traditional healer has addressed the question of why disability has come upon the individual.
Contemporary medical doctors are generally regarded as practitioners who just rush to write medical prescriptions, while traditional healers are viewed as being better for some of the above reasons.
Proclamations by traditional healers may direct a person with disabilities to desist from seeking contemporary medical healthcare on the grounds that this may anger the ancestors.
Whilst some people may argue that a section of persons with disabilities and their families may not be able to consult contemporary healthcare centres due to financial constraints, the bottom line is that others seek the services of traditional healers because of their cultural beliefs.
It is generally believed that there are some “African things” that contemporary healthcare systems cannot understand.
However, in addition to sharing turf with contemporary healthcare staff, traditional healers in Zimbabwe also share the treatment platform with religious prophets.
There is a paucity of literature pertaining to the role played by religious prophets in the national healthcare delivery system in relation to persons with disabilities.
Some researchers argue that it is difficult to draw a clear line between the practices of traditional healers and those of religious prophets.
This, they argue, is due to the fact that some religious prophets may castigate traditional healers and accuse them of worshipping ancestors and using evil spirits.
However, their approach is similar to the traditional approach as both models seek to exorcise evil spirits.
If a disability persists after consultation of traditional healers and the contemporary healthcare system, the situation is deemed very difficult to the extent that it goes beyond the resolution of humanity and ancestors.
As such, the situation is surrendered to Mwari (God), under whom some religious prophets claim to “cure” disability.
It, therefore, follows that the preference of a healthcare mode is not static, but it is largely influenced by specific moments in the life of a person with disabilities.
Zimbabwean religious prophets are predominantly members of Apostolic churches and Pentecostal churches that have been established by locals.
Such prophets aspire to heal or to rehabilitate persons with disabilities using the same supernatural powers as those used by Jesus, as depicted in the Bible, thus making the blind see, the deaf to hear and enabling those with physical disabilities to realise complete and miraculous bodily recovery.
Against this background, it is not surprising that a large number of persons with disabilities and their families may be attracted to such churches in an effort to seek divine cure of disability from the prophets.
The objective for persons with disabilities and their families is to, in part, seek healing in order to escape the stigma, discrimination and isolation that often surround disability.
On fees, the modern healthcare system has standard rate. On the other hand, traditional healers charge a negotiable fee for their services.
In cases where full payment is not available at the time of consultation, such fees can be paid in instalments.
Payments also depend on the complexity of the problem.
They can be levied in cash or other forms such as cattle, goats or harvested crops.
Some prophets levy a fee for their services while others do it for free.
However, people are still encouraged to give the prophet presents that may include cash or groceries, clothes or furniture as a way of expressing their gratitude for services rendered.
However, while some of the traditional healers and prophets are believed to be genuine, others are fake.
There is need to undertake research in the grossly underinvestigated area of the intersection of disability and modern, traditional and religious healthcare in order to inform policy and practice.
Dr Christine Peta is a disability, policy, international development and research expert who is the national director of disability affairs in Zimbabwe. She can be contacted on: [email protected]