Traditional Medicine in the Gambia

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Peterson, Ana
Roberts, William
The University of Maryland McNair Scholars Undergraduate Research Journal, 1, no. 1 (Winter 2008): 202-207.
The practice of traditional medicine is an important aspect of Gambian life and culture. It has existed in the country since before the arrival of western medicine and even the Islamic religion. Although there have been some additions to the methods of traditional healers of The Gambia since the coming of Islam, many of the values and concepts remain as they were when traditional medicine began. Modern medicine, that is the diagnosis and treatment of patients using scientific study and clinical trials, is the predominant form of healthcare for citizens of the United States while in The Gambia, seeking medical attention from traditional healers still remains to be a popular means of treatment. The popularity of traditional medicine continues to climb in the country, which in some ways can be attributed to the president, Alhagi Dr. Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh, who claims to be working to acquire cures of devastating diseases using traditional medicine. Initially, I was interested in following the topic of traditional medicine mostly because I found the idea of using plants as medicine intriguing. The use of medicinal plants is also an attractive subject with the current increasing appeal of herbal remedies and medicines in the United States. Keeping this fact in mind, I wanted to investigate the role herbal remedies played in a culture much different from that of the United States. Being a chemistry student without much prior knowledge about traditional medicine in The Gambia, I was under the impression that I might find many herbalists eager to reveal all of the herbs they used, what sicknesses the herbs treated, and what chemical compounds made these herbs. Upon learning more, I recognized that this was not always going to be the case. My purposes for research evolved into much more modest goals: to establish an understanding of the traditional form of healthcare in The Gambia, the measures being taken to integrate traditional medicine into the modern healthcare system, and the reasons for the effectiveness of herbal medicines. As well as being a way in which people attempt to remain healthy, traditional medicine is also a large piece of the culture that represents The Gambia. Traditional medicine remains within the culture by way of the practitioners from one generation passing the knowledge to members of the next generation. In this way, the title of traditional healer can remain within a family for many generations. The continuation of the knowledge of a traditional healer being put into practice is dependent upon the traditional healer himself. By taking a close look at the work of traditional healers in many areas of The Gambia, I was able to come into contact with a part of the country’s culture.