Yoruba Obatala Priests by Dierk Lange
Mental Health and Wellness

Pre-colonial Mental Health Practices among the Yoruba

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Yoruba Obatala Priests by Dierk Lange

If you have had the pleasure of watching a classic Nollywood film, you would have come across the character of a native doctor who uses traditional rituals to either bewitch or cure an individual of an illness.

Babalawo or Dibia as known in the Yoruba and Igbo dialects respectively, are supernatural arbitrators between the human and spiritual world acting as healers, teachers, diviners and advisors of people in the community.

According to the World Population Review, a majority of the population is split at 50/50 among Christians and Muslims, with many Nigerians combining their religion with their traditional beliefs. To this day, native doctors still provide invaluable services especially in the areas of health and divinity.

The stories captured in The Nollywood films can at times skew the true image of traditional medicine as a legitimate form of treatment and not just an avenue for witchcraft and curses as is often portrayed.

As is shown by Dr. Raymond Prince, a Canadian psychiatrist whom after his visit to Nigeria noted that,

‘It is interesting that in 1925, long before tranquilizers or shock therapies were known to European psychiatry, Chief Adetona, with his Rauvolfia medicine travelled to England to treat an eminent Nigerian who had become psychotic there…’

His article, Curse, Invocation and Mental Health among the Yoruba published in 1960 in the Canadian Psychiatric Association Journal, recorded various mental health practices of the Yoruba people.

Commissioned by the Western State government of Nigeria, he traversed the country on a 19-month tour, collecting information by interacting with patients and native doctors.

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Prince’s tone of surprise at the sophistication of traditional Yoruba mental health practices stemmed from false ideologies popularised at the time by pro-slavery and pro-colonial Europeans.


Dr. Raymond Prince, Psychiatrist. Image courtsey of Sage Journals

His paper however, gives a fascinating account of the classification of various mental illnesses and the methods of treatment applied from herbs such as the Rauvolfia plant and in some instances, witchcraft.

The Rauvolfia plant also known as Indian Snakeroot has been used to treat various mental illnesses for centuries not only in Nigeria but in other countries as well. It is widely used as an antihypertensive drug.

He gives further detailed descriptions of local terminologies and theories of causation for what were early schizophrenic illnesses, mania, depression, hysteria and other mental illnesses.

Some of the treatments included offerings to appease ancestral spirits, rituals in atonement for wrongs done, and herbs to treat the primary physical causes (e.g. malaria) of the madness or the psychiatric illness.

Although the native doctors did not know the chemical composition of the herbs, Prince was impressed by their ability to prescribe different treatments for different ailments with most patients recovering.

His work shows that even before the arrival of the white man, Africans had thriving mental health practices and were not barbaric as was the popular opinion at the time.

Dr. David Mitei, a Kenyan psychiatrist in his book, The African Textbook of Clinical Psychiatry and Mental Health, says that,

“It is noteworthy that extreme physical therapeutic approaches such as flogging, binding and starving were hardly practiced in Africa. Tradition demanded that the mentally ill be looked after like any other sick person. They were taken to traditional healers for diagnosis and treatment..”

After colonization, African countries took up and maintained the practices and policies of their colonial masters including health and in particular mental health.

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Across the continent, it is not uncommon to come across asylums and mental health hospitals run like prisons with the patients living in filthy rooms and not receiving proper treatment.

This is a colonial legacy and not an African one. As Dr. Ndetei describes above, flogging, binding and starving were hardly practised on mental patients in Africa.

Perhaps we need to look back into our traditional practices and combine it with the Western to see what works best.

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