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Introduction to Igbo Medicine - Part 2

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Knowledge of Herbal Resources and Development of Practitioners in Nigerian Society (Part   2) 


Alberta, Canada

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Monday, March 6, 2006 

Part one of this article explained the context under which healers are perceived and labeled in the biomedical healthcare domain of the so-called westernized modern society. It showed that education of healers is a fundamental development right that must be carefully woven around the cultural context and competency of the practitioners and their lives. It also pointed out that the problem of health diversity and indigenous knowledge which has been gaining attention since 1978 has not reached the level of understanding, accommodation and application through social policy and inclusion for specific and general development. It suggests that re-strategizing indigenous plant knowledge and suitable education of the healers in a university setting is right and must face the rigour of genuine culture to enhance the identity of the practitioners rather than de-professionalize or de-empower them. 

This second and concluding part will take up the whole argument further and show that indigenous culture roles and the power to cure largely exist within our minds and the material resources a society is endowed with. A graphic definition and uses of culture in the context of healers and knowledge of healing plant resources for development is rendered.    

 Indigenous Culture Roles and Power to Cure

The richness of culture exists in our minds and the material resources that it can blend with. In short, culture is manifested in the world that we inhabit; it shapes the way we live and thus re-establishes mores over time. Peoples’ lives are dialogues with others much like illness and behaviour are dialogues with sources of recovery from ill health. Indigenous knowledge is a basis for understanding how to live in local environments in a way that make sense for the people whose lives are sustained in them. The role of local or indigenous knowledge is to guide sustainable ways of life established with social systems containing linkages to cosmology, moral concepts, and pedigrees. Indigenous knowledge is also known as local knowledge and traditional knowledge; local knowledge accounts for a society’s origins and the embodied natural and socially constructed world it inhabits, and upon which it functions. It is a sensible dialogue, and a shared adaptive response to environmental challenges that affect people, their families and kin-related neighbourhoods. This suggests that a nation in quest for progress and development must not cheat itself by deliberately neglecting any sector of its culture: economic, political, religious, social, or health. Today, this is what the whole human rights movement throughout the world is all about, and Nigeria must be in synch with the universality and wisdom of this cultural right and knowledge. 

Currently, very little articulated ideology exists in Nigerian mainstream medical institutions. What little can be found is grounded in biomedical temperament, and does not include cultural ideology. Thus, it is far from reflecting the cultural ideology of indigenous health as part of its practice. This is the time to create a medical style that will build better healers within the context of their ancestral edifices and colours. This could be referred to as strategizing through higher learning opportunities and practices with cultural rights (UNESCO 1970) and endogenous creativity. The eminent fact that Nigerian healers understand the nature of their cosmological terrain lies in the notion that everything is related to everything else. This is what anthropologists call “holistic-interconnectedness,” which basically states that there is no separation between human and natural realms. With many indigenous peoples and knowledge systems, this same perspective is largely shared across cultures. It simply means that people belong, and have a place, in nature and vice versa and that people have obligations to other biological species and to the land and waters. Anderson (1996) saw, in 1996, that such holistic, emotional, and spiritual conceptions of the environment are crucial to long-term healthy relationships between humans and the global ecosystem. He further points out that knowledge without caring will not create the motivation to act. 

Another way indigenous (medical) culture knowledge can enhance sustainable relations with the local and global environments is by providing detailed indigenous knowledge of practices that have worked in particular contexts. It will be necessary, of course, to take such particulars and refine them. In view of that necessity, the particular knowledge in question should not be deduced or transferred without linking to its base in order for it to suit certain other social and biophysical contexts. The essence must be to provide guidance in understanding and implementing workable local solutions in similar contexts. If indigenous knowledge holds important answers for human survival and progress, bio-cultural diversity and sustainability of many ecosystems, and techniques and practices appropriate and meaningful to healers, then the voices of the healers and the sources of power they rely on must be considered. 

Knowledge and Power Embodying Cosmological Fields

Knowledge does not only include the ability to identify and classify plant resources; it also must include capitalization of the healer-participants’ knowledge as both individual and group property. According to Morrison and Wilson’s (2002) view, indigenous knowledge forms more of a net than a set of discrete boxes linked by lines or arrows of thought. Knowledge is complex, and biological and landscape knowledge has links to many different realms of the Nigerian indigenous praxis. Indigenous medicinal plants normatively supply not only moral lessons but also craft prayers that leave us with a sense of healing. 

Knowledge of plants can be organized in many ways. First, it can be referenced by ancestral fields. Second, it can be referenced by the cycle of the seasons as the healers’ symbolically document and store plants and their active or activatable ingredients with relevant rituals. And third, the earth and water as fields by themselves around which plants grow provide scenes and metaphors for linking specific social groupings and habitats to iconic plant forms and uses. In this way, healers will see themselves as makers of their fields as they contribute to the emergent University learning. Adopting their concepts and knowledge system will provide emotional and even spiritual commitment to the rights and well-being of people and other beings. A sustainable way of life requires a real commitment to, and reciprocity with, other beings on the land. Considering relations to the land where these exploitable plants grow will essentially serve as social intertwinement with material culture. This, in turn, will result in a helpful encounter with the environmental and medical globalization of knowledge and techniques. 

In order to understand Nigerian healers in their various indigenous statuses and medical domains it is also appropriate to see how they explain the creation of cultural, political, and economic order conducive to health and well-being. The creation of order is often claimed by social scientists as being intellectual and psychological functions of religion. Indeed, this is a major aspect of the worldview. Cosmology provides a map of the universe that identifies different beings, such as deities, animals, and demons, and their lifestyles and location in relation to us and to one another. This includes, but is not limited to, the sacred and temporal spaces that share important attributes with the body-self, body-politic, and body-social (Scheper-Hughes & Lock 1987). Apparently, cosmology systematizes an organized universe for the healer and his world of everyday interaction in ways that are suitable to the delivery of health and the stability of society. 

An additional function of cosmology can be seen in its contribution to the professional healers’ understanding, and our own lay understanding, of how things come to be. In this case, what is referred to as premises of causality is implied. Cosmology (Schafer 1980) helps explain good and bad luck, productivity, and imbalance in the concentric rings of spaces of normality. It encodes and decodes how healers and clients make sense of space, seasons, fecundity, and abundance and lack, as well as issues affecting weather, productivity, surplus, benevolence, and reciprocity. Moreover, it unfolds the layers of life-world, therefore making it possible for the circumstances surrounding how people understand time emerge. Impinged on this is, therefore, the issue of how health benefits and implications will turn out if things go wrong and there is a need to call on knowledge fields in order to identify remedies. 

Culture Defined in Context of Healers and Knowledge of Plant Resources

Since the training of healers is appropriate, the meaning of the culture (Iroegbu 2003) within which these healers operate requires some form of deep understanding. Generally, culture provides people with the capacity to live in the world and exploit their environment meaningfully, and this is just what healers do.  Cultures act to reproduce and transmit knowledge to society from one generation to another and also to facilitate adaptation to changing circumstances. Culture is thus universal, and part of what everyone shares, although differences are experienced according to different contexts. Healers act as cultural heroes and are empowered to explain and interpret mythical and revealed sources of cultural wisdom. As such, one basic aspect of our humanity is generally experienced and expressed within our culturally situated differences, some of which healers help to reconstruct and fix cosmologically. Healers are, in essence, cosmological engineers and this fact impacts the ways in which plant sources of healing power and their uses will be communicated to the University elite for further rationalization.    

It must be pointed out here that the notion of “culture” is important to the formulation and understanding of economic health and the development of plant resources. The term ‘culture,’ has always been used in both wide and restricted senses. A UNESCO conference held in 1968 ‘on cultural rights as human rights’ brought about a line of definition which states that “culture” means the very essence of humanity, including the sum total of human activities; culture is precisely that which makes human persons different from nature. While a World Commission on Culture and Development report states, similarly, that “culture is the total and distinctive way of life of a people or society,” article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1992 says that “culture means a way of life that mirrors and shapes the economic, health, social, and political life.” Nowadays, culture embraces the educational system, the mass media, and cultural industries. In short, it is all about humans and their everyday locally and globally merged worlds. Additionally, the Declaration on Culture Objectives in Berlin of 1984, states that the role of culture is a whole of values which gives human beings their reason to be and act, particularly in respect to health needs as the main aim of all societies is to enable everyone to achieve personal fulfillment. The right to seek information and participate at all levels within reach of one’s competence makes it necessary to cultivate cultural and medical co-operation. 

In their book Cultural Context of Health, Illness and Medicine, Loustaunau and Sobo (1997) show  that culture guides how people live, what they generally believe and value, how they communicate, and their habits, customs, and tastes. It also guides the ways people meet the various needs of society, namely how goods and services are produced and distributed, how power and decision-making are designated, and what, and how, deity or gods are represented. Culture therefore prescribes rituals, art forms, entertainment, and customs of daily living. Most certainly, the ways in which we interpret and perceive health and illness and our choices in providing and seeking care are primarily influenced by our culture (Mckeon 1953, Robertson 1978). Culture provides a knowledge base that people use and act on. Some cultural knowledge is declarative in that it consists of facts and procedures for seeking and using cultural elements such as plants. For example, the akata plant is used for managing psychiatric disturbances. It is one thing to locate this plant in the bush and quite another to handle the plant correctly in order to extract its healing potential. The forces with which healers function are usually behind the rituals of effective empowerment; in order to achieve e relief and stability for clients and the environments in which they live, rituals are a crucial part of identifying, preparing, and using plants. Laboratory medicine may use this plant to some limited extent, but its full application will depend on cultural components not readily useable or exposable through laboratory lenses and test-tubes. One can only hope that all of these cultural issues will be taken into account in order to make the University of Lagos’ program for the training of Nigerian healers meaningful.   

In this field, anthropologists see the primacy of culture as a deep concept that looks at the way in which groups and individuals manipulate their world and constantly negotiate and mobilize it. They view culture as a framework that allows the members of a given society to make sense of themselves, their experiences in their constantly changing medical world, and the progression of their lives. In this sense, culture is human creativity with enormous implications for health, economic, and political survival achieved by adaptation and influence.

The role of medical anthropologists will be important in understanding cultures and designing appropriate training models involving healers. According to Norlan’s Development Anthropology (2002), anthropologists working in development perform three closely interrelated roles: they collect and analyze information; they help design plans and policies; and they put these plans into action as program and project/training implementers working within the multidisciplinary instruction team that must be involved from the start to the finish of a project. A good development teaching team must be, above all, a good participant formulator and implementer of knowledge transmission in the Nigerian health and medicinal plant development environment. 

Social and economic policy in Nigeria must recognize this role in a development design. Medical and health system development anthropologists not only show policy bureaucrats and health scientists that there are different cultural worlds beyond their own; they also help them understand how to interact successfully with those cultures. Anthropology is used in international cultural health encounters not for neo-colonization of any sort, but largely as a science of discovering the ways necessary to realize systematic harvesting of knowledge. Exploring healing plants in Nigeria through new forms of focused education for practitioners of medicinal resources is a welcome upgrade that can only meaningfully succeed and be relevant through a genuinely sensible approach.  


This contribution has argued that Nigeria is blessed with abundant ethno medical resources that are every bit as valuable as her crude-oil wells. Yet, this Nigerian asset is greatly neglected due to conflicts with colonialism, missionization, and westernization, and a denigration of indigenous medicine. Moreover, it has been stressed that the present political administration is doing far less than it should in this respect. The Ministry of Health has been urged to enact policies that would be more relevant to the skills and resources of the Nigerian indigenous medical world. The University of Lagos runs a diploma program on traditional medicine that focuses on the medicinal use of healing plants. Although this is viewed as a welcome development, it cannot be socio-culturally or professionally meaningful without allowing the voices and choices of healers in the program to contribute to its design. It has also been suggested that social scientists, such as medical anthropologists, be part of determining the learning focus; involving them will enrich the perspective of the power of culture as a training model. 

The conclusion here is that Nigerian healers who participate in the training offered by the University should not be disenfranchised from their cultural medical roots. Rather, an effective training program must grow out of those same roots, and must consciously guard against immersing healers in the Confucian influence as described by Masi et al. in their edited book Health and Cultures: Exploring the Relationships – Programs, Services and Care (Vol.11). Confucian influence would encourage healers to suppress any feelings of discomfort they may have at the possibility of risking their statuses and culture identities because of a fear that voicing their concerns might upset the medical and teaching staff of the Botanical and Pharmacological Departments of the University of Lagos and elsewhere. No doubt, the development and utilization of Nigerian indigenous medical knowledge will lead Nigeria to new technological heights in the sphere of understanding and exploring integrated health-care dynamics. Considering all of the concerns regarding the de-professionalization of Nigerian healers and the suggestions in this paper, nothing should derail the vision and mission of the Department of Plant Sciences of the University of Lagos to provide Nigerian healers with authentic training. 

As interculturalism is part of today’s strengthening development sensibility, I would encourage interculturally oriented and positioned scholars to come forward and help to do more in this matter. There is a great need for interdisciplinary scholarly awareness and policy advocacy initiatives. It is important to call on researchers in diaspora to bring home the benefits of pharmacology through diversity in pharmaceutical skills that would include harnessing the rich healing plant resources and practitioners’ roles in Nigeria, in particular Igboland. The fact is that media reports about training medicinal practitioners in this way or that way won’t save lives or the health care system. What is needed now is concrete action with the intention of thinking and acting more creatively and collaboratively. 

This is all the more reason why people in the pharmaceutical area will offer encouragement in the work of healers. As care-givers and scientists, healers foster spiritual devotion and culturally diverse drug assortment, development, counseling, and dispensing in order to touch the lives of people within the context of changing simple and complex societies of the world. We can be assured that practitioners when well directed will not relent in the production of desired knowledge that will restore the dignity and equality of Igbo and African medicinal plants in their endogenous use and influence for humanity and for people is dire distress.           



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Introduction to Igbo Medicine - Part 1

Introduction to Igbo Medicine - Part 3

Introduction to Igbo Medicine - Part 4

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Patrick Iroegbu Ph.D

Patrick Iroegbu is a Social and Cultural (Medical) Anthropologist and lectures Anthropology in Canada. He is the author of Marrying Wealth, Marrying Poverty: Gender and Bridewealth Power in a Changing African Society: The Igbo of Nigeria (2007). He equally co-ordinates the Kpim Book Series Project of Father-Prof. Pantaleon Foundation based at Owerri, Nigeria. Research interests include gender and development, migration, race and ethnic relation issues, as well as Igbo Medicine, Social Mental Health and Cultural Studies.