By Mirabelle Enaka Kima, IFRC

In many African societies, traditional healers are solicited for many reasons. They are called healers or witch doctors for their talents in hunting evil spells and for their mastery of medicinal plants. They are listened to and respected by communities who have full confidence and trust in their skills. It is how these men and women earn a living.

During the Ebola epidemic response, traditional healers were quickly identified as key actors to help raise awareness about the disease in communities, particularly in remote areas where they maintain close relationships with the people they serve.

Doumbouya Idrissa is a traditional healer and President of the Traditional Healers Network of the Lower Guinea region in Guinea. Known as Simbo, which means “strong man” in Sussu, one of the local languages, he played a key role in the mobilization of traditional healers and their commitment to help end the outbreak through the sharing of knowledge on symptoms and preventive measures.

“My first mission was to talk with my colleagues on the dangers they were exposed to by manipulating patients without any protection. Considering the large number of patients we were receiving daily, the safe practice of our work required understanding of the epidemic, how the virus is transmitted, what the early symptoms are, and especially how to avoid being contaminated,” says Doumbouya.

The commitment of traditional healers to the design and dissemination of key communication messages was a great asset to Red Cross community engagement efforts. It also brought significant changes to the way traditional healers were working.

As a vital link in the chain of information between Ebola response units and traditional healers, Doumbouya was trained in communication techniques, infection control measures, and basic knowledge on the Ebola virus disease. It was information which he then shared with his colleagues who, for the first time, agreed to integrate new methods of practice into their consultations.

“We started referring our patients to healthcare centres for consultations prior to treatment at our level. Any patient who had not been to the hospital was not to be treated by us. A medical report presented as proof was asked upon arrival,” adds Doumbouya.

Handwashing and temperature checks also became part of their consultation protocol.

By working hand-in-hand with health teams and Ebola response partners, including Red Cross teams, traditional healers helped strengthen actions around contact tracing, and improved attendance in healthcare centres by patients, particularly in rural areas. “Thanks to our actions, we were able to refer more than 600 patients to the hospital, 20 of whom were infected with Ebola,” says Doumbouya.

When the outbreak was declared over in late 2015, traditional healers regrouped in an association, wishing to be part of community-based surveillance mechanisms to prevent a further resurgence of Ebola or other diseases. “Our strong presence in all villages and proximity to communities will be of benefit to health surveillance programmes and early warning systems in preventing health related disasters,” argues Doumbouya.

Struggling to get customers back

But their success in changing behaviours during the outbreak is having an opposite impact now. Fewer people are seeking out traditional healers, preferring the modern healthcare centres instead. Traditional healers are struggling to earn a living.

“Traditional healers are beginning to give up. Referring patients has finally not been helpful to us,” says Doumbouya. “We played our own role in the fight against Ebola and, in return, we are not receiving any support. We have lost most of our customers.”

In order to preserve knowledge acquired from the Ebola operation, and to support one another, traditional healers consult with eachother weekly. “It is an approach that allows us to continue sensitizing communities, but also strengthens the solidarity of the group,” says Mariama, a traditional healer who came from Sierra Leone to Forécariah 25 years ago.

“Most of us lost our customers by referring them to hospitals. Today, we have to exercise solidarity through this joint consultation initiative in order to help those among us left with nothing.” “I am an Ebola survivor. I was forced to leave my village after being contaminated by a patient. I receive assistance from the group for my family and myself,” says Souleyman, a traditional healer whose house was burned by his community after he tested positive for Ebola.