By Deborah Bach
The visions started when Mirriam Bangisa was a child, coming to her while she slept.
Bangisa would see herself wearing beaded clothing and performing traditional dances of her Xhosa tribe as she helped people at a sacred water site. In her dreams, she heard the voices of her grandparents telling her she was meant to become a sangoma, a type of South African traditional healer.
But the young girl’s father, a pastor in the Dutch Reformed Church, told her she must go to church and focus on God. Bangisa grew up and became a pastor herself, hoping a devout existence would banish the visions.
But they returned again and again, as vivid as a movie.
Bangisa eventually accepted her calling and became a certified traditional healer in 1998. Now 58, she lives in Old Crossroads, one of the most densely populated townships in Cape Town, and serves as a naturopath and trusted advisor to people in her community on issues ranging from heartbreak to high blood pressure.
Bangisa is also a member of the community advisory board for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN) site in Old Crossroads run by the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation. Her dual roles epitomize the mix of modernity and tradition in South Africa, where Western-trained doctors are still greatly outnumbered by indigenous healers – around 30,000 to 200,000, respectively, according to some estimates.
Traditional healers play an integral role on the HVTN’s community advisory boards (CABs), said Nomampondo Barnabas, the community liaison manager at the Perinatal HIV Research Unit in Soweto, Johannesburg, another HVTN site.
Often highly respected in their communities, traditional healers provide an important bridge between network sites and surrounding areas, informing local residents about what the HVTN does and in turn, advising HVTN staff on how to avoid cultural and political landmines.
“We believe that our research should be culturally sensitive, and traditional healers are able to sensitize researchers to what is culturally acceptable,” Barnabas said.
Bangisa also goes into the community and talks with people about the network, telling them about clinical trials and addressing misunderstandings head-on.
Traditional healers are also helpful in discouraging trial participants from combining study drugs and herbal remedies that could result in adverse reactions, Barnabas said. That’s important, she said, since South Africans may consult with traditional healers if something happens in the middle of the night when medical clinics are closed, or may opt to see them over conventional doctors.
“I would define them as the first level of community health care,” she said.