Five traditional healers who are a critical link between the community and local government clinics in South Africa, have been honoured in the USA.
KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa – FIVE Traditional Healers from KwaZulu-Natal – who are central to an innovative programme run in partnership with a local NGO and the KZN Department of Health – have travelled to Cambridge, Massachusetts in the United States, where they were hosted for five days and honoured for their work by the prestigious Ragon Institute of MGH, Harvard and MIT.
Their trip coincided with celebratory events marking the 10-year-anniversary of the Ragon, including the Institute’s work in South Africa, and culminated in a gala dinner on Friday (26 April) where it was announced that a USD 200-million gift (R2.9 bn) from Terry and Susan Ragon was made to Massachusetts General Hospital, the most significant single contribution in the hospital’s 208-year history.
The Traditional Healers, Nelisiwe Zuma (Sweetwaters); Sibongile Madlala (Snathing); Tholakele Memela (Imbali); Ngenzeni Mbhele (Elandskop) and Nokuvela Nkambule (Taylors Halt) make up the core of the Edendale Hospital based ITEACH training team – preparing other healers to provide a critical link between the community and local government clinics, and ensuring patients do not delay seeking medical care at a clinic when it is needed.
ITEACH (Integration of TB in Education and Care for HIV/AIDS) is a non-profit organisation founded in 2005 and affiliated with the Ragon Institute and the HIV Pathogenesis Programme at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine and funded by philanthropic support from the Witten Family Foundation.
In partnership with the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health, ITEACH aims to strengthen HIV and TB services and to assist the Department in achieving its targets and improving clinical outcomes.
Dr Krista Dong, the founder of ITEACH, says: “Since 2009, ITEACH has been training Traditional Health Practitioners (THPs) as certified HIV counsellors, who can provide support to the vast majority of patients who utilise both traditional and western health services, thereby ensuring safe and culturally relevant integration. To date, almost 400 THPs have been certified by ITEACH, creating a network of knowledgeable and skilled HIV care providers.”
KZN Health MEC Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo says: “We are extremely grateful to the Ragon Institute and ITEACH for the work that they are doing in our province. Their impact has been extremely visible. Traditional healers are an essential part of our society. They influence the direction of the patients in terms of seeking health. It, therefore, makes a lot of sense to recruit, train and convert them into ambassadors for health. We need to strengthen this programme and really support it. We also congratulate the five traditional healers who went abroad, as they will come back and share their experiences with their colleagues.”
The five Traditional Health Practitioners were part of the first group to be trained and certified as HIV counsellors by ITEACH in 2009. They flew over to the US last week (Tuesday) as guests of the Ragon’s. On their arrival in Cambridge, they were received in a welcome event held at the Ragon Institute, hosted by the Director, Professor Bruce Walker, Deputy Director, Prof. Facundo Batista, senior clinician-scientists, junior investigators, fellows, graduate and undergraduate students from the Institute’s three affiliated institutions.
“It was such an honour to be part of the team that went to the US,” says Ngenzeni Mbhele. “The professors and students were so excited to see us. It brings me so much joy to see that as Traditional Health Practitioners we are so important.”
“There was so much interest in what we do,” added Tholakele Memela. “We were asked a lot of questions about our work as Traditional Health Practitioners, as well as being part of the ITEACH team and working to support the Department of Health as HIV counsellors.”
As special guests, they were escorted on tours of the research laboratories at the Ragon Institute, the expansive campus and research facilities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Their work is already well known to many of the scientists, as the healers have hosted them on their visits to South Africa, showing them the work of ITEACH at Edendale hospital, it’s surrounding referral clinics, in the community and from their home traditional practices in Umgungundlovu.
“Terry Ragon met the healers on his first visit to South Africa — a visit that convinced him to him get involved and ultimately to give the initial USD 100-million gift (R1.4 bn) to establish the Ragon Institute ten years ago,” explains Dr Dong. “Subsequently, his wife Susan Ragon made several visits to South Africa that included spending time with the traditional healers and learning about the work they do with ITEACH and the Department.”
“Susan Ragon drove much of the planning of the 10th Anniversary event, and she personally ensured that the Traditional Healers were part of the gala event, which highlighted the healer’s work as part of the important accomplishments of the Ragon Institute over the past decade,” Dr Dong adds.
A six-minute video by Durban production company East Coast TV – showcasing the work of ITEACH and other Ragon Institute projects in KwaZulu-Natal and featuring MEC Sibongiseni Dhlomo and the Traditional Healers – premiered at the event.
Following the screening, the Traditional Healers were welcomed to the stage and provided a special traditional thanks for the work of the Ragon Institute over the past decade and a blessing for continued success into the foreseeable future.
“It was such an honour for the healers to have their work highlighted at this event,” says Deli Mthimkhulu, who runs the healer integration programme at ITEACH and who travelled with the healers to the U.S. “We know the important role that the healers play in linking and keeping patient in HIV-care, but it is great to have it acknowledged in this way.”
Among those in attendance at the event hosted by the Ragons were Peter L. Slavin, MD, the president of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), George Q. Daley, dean of Harvard Medical School (HMS), Dr L. Rafael Reif, the President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Nobel laureate, Dr David Baltimore and other prominent academics, scientists and donors. Musician Sting performed at the celebrations.