“We all help each other”

Article and photos by Loredana Sorg, Programme Officer at Biovision

At first glance the island in the south of Uganda looks like an enchanted garden: Narrow dirt roads wind their way through the virgin forest, children play in the vegetable beds between the small huts and hens peck around in the grass. However, appearances are deceptive as Bundyoko, an island in Buwama Subcounty some 80 kilometres south-west of Kampala, is poor with extremely limited medical facilities. Recently, a new road was constructed along a narrow earth causeway connecting it to the mainland. Before that you had to use a boat to negotiate the swamp and so islanders rarely made the difficult journey to the nearest urban centre. However, once they reached the small town of Buwama, the medical centre often did not have the required medicines in stock and the nurses were totally overwhelmed – or they needed to do a second job in order to earn enough to live on.

For some time, the medical healers have met regularly on the island on Tuesday afternoons. They are also attending training courses at the Forest School of Buyijja and on completion of the course the healers can offer their services in their own communities. In the past, almost every Ugandan village had medical healers – men and women - who practiced traditional methods. They were able to treat common illnesses and minor accidents and their knowledge was passed down from generation to generation. In recent decades, the system has come under pressure and in some cases has been discredited because it was linked to witchcraft. The training offered to traditional healers has been updated and now includes protection of the natural environment. It is provided by the Ugandan NGO Prometra Uganda, a longstanding partner of Biovision. Prometra has developed a Forest School in the district of Mpigi, some distance away from larger towns and settlements. The training is held every Wednesday and the students - male and female and aged 17 to 80 - exchange information on natural methods of healing.

The students include healers from the island of Bundyoko. In the first year, they learn how to identify a wide range of medicinal plants. In their second year, they learn the fundamentals of anatomy and how to produce the medicines. In the third year, they can specialise in the use of herbs, midwifery, traditional chiropractic treatment or psychological counselling. Since the “Agali wamu Healers‘ Group” was set up to provide basic medical care on the island, there has been a queue of men, women and children on Tuesday afternoons waiting in the courtyard that acts as a treatment room. The group’s name translates roughly as “A single tooth cannot eat meat” and is intended to stress the importance of community. Only by working together and providing mutual support to neighbours and family members will the island population survive. When you talk to members of the “Agali wamu Healers‘ Group“, it is clear that each of them has a specific role – ranging from secretary to president and publicity officer. Equally striking is the way they all talk proudly about their children – more than half of whom are twins. This means that the most experienced of the traditional midwives has her hands full and is called out whenever a birth is imminent. The group’s president is also in demand. She has been attending courses at the Forest School for eight years and is called out to particularly tricky cases. If she is unable to help, she gets in touch with her senior contact at the Forest School and if he is not aware of a traditional treatment that might help, he refers the patient to Dr Sekagya, the founder and director of the Forest School. He decides whether the illness can be treated with traditional methods or whether the patient needs to go to hospital. If the latter, Dr Sekagya often takes the patient immediately to Accident and Emergency: Firstly because he is the only one with transport and secondly because his recommendation can guarantee rapid treatment.

Evening view from the Forest School
View over the fields and woods of the Forest School, on the right the building site that will become the new processing centre for the medicinal plants
Surgery run by the Agali wamu Healers’ Group
Friendly welcome on the island of Bundyoko – the farmer and healer group meet here every Tuesday afternoon

However, most cases can be dealt with by members of the Agali wamu Healers‘ Group. Once a month they receive a free supply of natural remedies and do house visits during the rest of the week. “Often, I can’t ask for any payment,” explains the president. “Most patients are family or friends and “it may be that the next day I am the one asking for help from neighbours and so I don’t demand payment. Here, we all help each other”. The priority is the health of the islanders rather than private commercial interests. In order to help with this issue, Prometra Uganda is also encouraging the traditional healers to grow organic vegetables and medicinal plants. In future, both will be processed and sold. This will ensure that the commitment displayed by the healers is also rewarded financially.