There’s a famous herbal antidote in Gonder which includes cutting the back of the tongue. The patient, usually diagnosed with a condition known as ‘ye wef beshita’ or bird sickness (scientifically called Hepatitis B), is expected to bring their own razor for the procedure. The healer asks them to open their mouth then slits open a vein underneath their tongue. The blood is meant to be swished around in the mouth for a few seconds and then spat out. A pendant, made from special leaves is then worn around the patient’s neck for about a month.
This was what healed Eskinder Bihonegn from his illness.
“I had gone to the hospital and was diagnosed with a liver problem but the prescribed medicines weren't helping at all”, said Eskinder. “I went to the traditional practitioners when I lost hope in the medicine I was taking. I feel good now that I’ve been treated there.”
Eskinder says he has an appetite again, for food and for life.
In Gonder, over 600 km from Addis Ababa, traditional medicine is popular. Billboards are everywhere, touting remedies for stomach aches, arthritis, liver problems, and depression. Traditional medicine has been practiced within the communities, but practitioners are now seeking legal avenues for their work.
In the past two years, 20 traditional medicine centers were given licenses to operate, making a total of 28 licensed healers in and around the city, according to the data from the Central Gondar Zone Health Department.
The criteria for the license is less focused on education than sanitary requirements; the ability to read and write is sufficient. Having clean water and toilets is mandatory.
The healer needs to be 18 years or older and able to speak and write in the local language. They should hire an assistant and provide proof of residence, and the license is theirs for the taking.
"We check that they don’t have any addictions and if they can pay the license fee,” said Mesa Tarekegn, a nurse at the Health Department. “It’s not required to have a medical or educational background.”
Traditional healing has oral roots and so many of the healers are believed to have gotten their knowledge from their ancestors. The healers are secretive; they guard their secrets closely and rarely disclose the details of what goes into their craft.
There are many reasons behind the secrecy of the craft. One if it is ensuring the herbs used in healing are not known and thus do not go extinct, according to a study published in 2018 by the University of Gondar. The level of prestige healers have in their community is another.
The study, which focused on herbal medicine lists visual, biological, and clinical examination along with patient identification as the most common diagnostic methods in traditional medicine. Clinical examination is a method of diagnosing disease, like checking the patient's physical condition, heart rate, body temperature, and weight loss.
June to November are the months when there's an abundance of roots, leaves, twigs and when plants are in bloom and flowering in the country; a good time to collect herbs for healers. Even the days when the healers make and administer their medicine are ritualistic: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
“It takes time to cut down on the plants needed to make the herbal medicine,” said Merigeta Smurna, a traditional healer in Gonder. “You spend a long time identifying the type of plant, getting to know the places it grows, and when to cut it. There are herbs that should be cut and digested on an empty stomach. Others require a more complicated process.”
However, following the instructions of the healer, whether it's a drink, an ointment or a necklace to be worn for a few days is of utmost importance according to Smurna, who advocates for fusing knowledge of tradition and modern medicine.
The healers advise on what to eat or what to avoid; mostly to keep away from alcohol and sex.
Eskinder was told to eat spicy food after his trip to the healer.
“I’ve been eating a lot of spicy food since,” said Eskinder. “I feel much better but I’m worried it might have side effects.”