Negotiating traditional medicine in Namibia: the politics of health and development

Researcher: Maylin Meincke

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has promoted the integration of traditional medicine into Primary Health Care (PHC) systems since the late 1970. While in the beginning traditional healers were identified as potential PHC workers, since the 1990s their integration is advocated to improve traditional medicine and control the practice of traditional healers. However, the integration of traditional medicine into national healthcare structures has remained a contentious issue.  Especially in relation to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa traditional healers have been both constructed as potential allies and as accessories. Yet, national policy frameworks have been formulated to improve collaboration between the formal healthcare sector and traditional medicine practitioners, and various small-scale programmes were set-up to improve traditional healers’ knowledge, attitudes and practices (KAP) concerning HIV/AIDS, or to include them into HIV prevention and home-based care activities. More recently, traditional healers have been approached by international bioprospectors, local research institutions and governments for their herbal concoctions. This considerable interest in traditional herbal remedies and related traditional or indigenous knowledge (TK/IK) triggered the formulation of various international and national policy responses. In Africa, interregional platforms were created, such as the Southern African Network for Biosciences (SANBio) of the New Partnership of African Development (NEPAD), which is a technical body of the African Union.

This research focuses on Namibia, which has been following international policy guidelines. Health-wise, the Namibian Government has been formulating a policy aiming at the control and integration of traditional healers into the national healthcare structure similar to the South African Government Bill from 2007. Traditional healers have already been conceptually integrated into Namibia’s Primary Health Care policy from 2007, where they are identified as potential home-based care workers.

Since Namibia was involved in the international negotiations that lead to the ‘Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization (ABS) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)’ in 2012, the Namibian Government has been very active in developing a national Bill to regulate (ABS) of genetic resources, integrating civil society, private sector representatives and aid organisations into the policy forming process. The Bill, once passed, would not only regulate the access to genetic materials by foreign bioprospectors, but also the activities of researchers at the University of Namibia (UNAM). UNAM has hosts several research projects on the biochemical properties of traditional medicinal plants, either funded by the Namibian Ministry of Education, or by the SANBio initiative.

Against this backdrop, this research project aims at elucidating the imaginative global spaces created through practices and policy discourses in relation to traditional medicine, through the intersection with local realities, and through traditional healers’ responses to such practices and discourses. It thus focuses on three levels of analysis: (a) the international and regional policy discourse concerning traditional medicine; (b) the discourses and practices of the respective ministries, civil society, aid organisations, and researchers at the University of Namibia concerning traditional medicine in Namibia; and (c) how traditional healers in the urban centres of Windhoek, Rundu, and Katima Mulilo relate and respond to the various discourses and practices by national and international actors that aim at controlling, regulating, assessing and accessing their knowledge and healing practices.

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