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The progressive traditional healer

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Dini Makame is one of few traditional healers in Zanzibar who collaborate closely with mainstream medical practitioners.

I step into traditional healer Dini Makame’s office from the bright midday sun. It takes a moment to adjust my eyes to the darkness of the room. As I look around, I notice a cowhide hanging on the clay wall and on the floor, countless spice containers are stacked on top of each other. Dini Makame himself is seated behind a small desk, looking like a scholar or a priest.

However, do not let the seemingly traditional atmosphere trick you. Dini Makame, 29, is one of the most progressive healers in Zanzibar. He is working closely with the health workers at the local hospital, referring cases that require specialized treatment, particularly patients with mental health issues.

From March to November last year, Dini Makame referred 46 patients with severe symptoms, many of them with signs of severe depression, to the hospital for assessment and treatment. He is proving to his community that traditional and western medicine can go hand in hand, although this approach is not always popular.

“The problem is that some people think that I disrespect them by referring them to the hospital. People don’t want to go to the hospital,” he says.

Although Makame’s approach divides opinions in his community in rural Zanzibar, his work is essential in bridging the treatment gap in African countries – especially when it comes to mental health, according to Dr. Victoria Mutiso from the Africa Mental Health Research and Training Foundation in Nairobi.

“When we link government health workers and traditional practitioners, we are able to get people out of the clinic and to access basic psychosocial intervention,” she says.

Traditional healers might hold the key to accessible mental health care in Africa, she argues, however, decisionmakers often deem them untrustworthy.

“For it to be rolled out, you need to have political will, but stakeholders on the ground do not believe in the traditional systems. Even at international conferences, people think that traditional healers are some weird-looking guys. There is resistance everywhere,” she says.