A Book Review
A Book Review by Fekadu Fullas, R.Ph, Ph.D.
September 13, 2017

A Century of Magico-Religious Healing. The African, Ethiopian Case (1900-1980s). By Assefa Balcha Negwo. The Red Sea Press; Africa World Press, Trenton, New Jersey. 2015. xvi + 254 pp. 5.5 x 8.5 in. ISBN 978-1-56902-418-8 (pb).

The use of “African” as part of the title may give the impression that what is discussed in the book equally applies to other African countries. Perhaps, the “—the Ethiopian Case---“would have been sufficient and more apt. The book is divided into nine chapters interspersed with 21 figures depicting amulets, magic scrolls and other images.  It is based on interviews with 63 cleric and non-cleric healers from many regions of Ethiopia, and also relying on extensive literature available to the author.  

Chapter 1 is devoted to a description of traditional medicine vis a vis modern medicine in the beginning years of the 20th Century. During this period, despite the introduction of rudimentary cosmopolitan (modern, western) medicine, church-based spiritual healing and herbal medicine continued to be practiced. Chapters 2 and 3 navigate through apprenticeship and education requirements for students to become healers. The mentors, who are church-based cleric-healers, put their students through various stages of learning. Chapter 3 identifies three sets of learning: permissible magico-religious knowledge, non-permissible magico-religious education and magico-medical knowledge, which involved what is called black arts. Many of the permissible magico-religious prayers used by cleric-healers for healing are extracted from prayer books, such as passages in the bible, the litanies of the Mass and devotional books of angels, martyrs and also other apocryphal or extra-biblical texts. The magico-religious prayers are used for physical illnesses and social maladies, such as for protection against evils and disease-causing spirits. The non-permissible prayers are mostly not sanctioned by the church and involve uttering magical words, chants and gestures to heal patients. The chapter has also a section on herbal medicine which delves into how students are trained in the collection, preparation and administration of plant medicines, with all associated routines.

Chapter 4 outlines the status of indigenous medicine during the Italian occupation period (1935/36-1941). During this period, because indigenous healers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church were aligned with the patriotic resistance, their practices were severely suppressed. Chapters 5 and 6 mainly cover various aspects of the practice of traditional medicine in the post-liberation period right up to the ouster of monarchial rule (1941-1974). During this period, despite the proliferation of Western medicine, traditional methods of healing persisted, especially in rural settings. Of note during this period of practice of pluralistic medicine, was the rise of “injectionists,” who practiced hybrid medicine. Although the “injectionists” were formally trained as dressers and health-assistants to help other practitioners in clinics and hospitals, they were not trained, nor licensed to practice medicine independently. However, they continued administering injectable medicines illegally. In 1942 and 1948, the practice of traditional medicine was legislated through proclamations.

Chapter 7 lists the major magico-religious texts which were published by Tesfa Gebreselassie. Several herbal pharmacoepias were also published in the 20th century.  Chapter 8 & 9, which cover the period 1974-1980, elaborate how the military government of Derg went after magico-religious medical texts by either confiscating or destroying them.  The cleric-healers who used these texts were accused of practicing magic. On the other hand, a coordinating office was set up within the Ministry of Health to investigate traditional medicine in line with the recommendations of the World Health Organization.

This book is useful to readers who wish to get a broad introduction to Ethiopian traditional medicine as practiced in the 20th century. It mainly focuses, perhaps rightly so, on church-based healing systems. However, as scientific medicine advances, so does rational healing methods. Other than providing a useful background to traditional healing systems in Ethiopia in the 20th century, the wide applicability of these systems in the era of modern medicine is not feasible. The exception, in the mind of this reviewer, is the practice of traditional herbal medicine—even that, only after it is vetted out through rigorous scientific research.


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