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A nganga, or a witch doctor, holds a place of prominence in many traditional African societies. This is a man or woman who has trained for many years to become an expert herbalist and spiritual healer, and has extensive knowledge of medicines that can be obtained from the forest; the remedies are kept secret and are not normally shared with the general public or other healers. The nganga is summoned in times of trouble to both divine the reason for a particular illness as well as to propose the steps necessary for curing it; he or she may also be summoned to explain a death not caused by old age.
To start with, the nganga will talk to the patient, having him or her unburden the intimate details of his or her mental and physical state. Telling the nganga about their anxieties and worries can alleviate the patient's condition to some extent. This is similar to discussing the inner angst with a psychiatrist in other societies.
The supernatural healing that comes next involves chanting to invoke the spirits and using the hakata, four rectangular wood pieces with carved surfaces, to divine what sort of spirits they are. The nganga spits a special concoction on the hakata pieces and throws them to the ground and divines a meaning from the way they fall and the combination in which they fall. The nganga communicates with the spirits and ascertains if they are ancestral spirits, and asks them for the reasons behind the patient's illness. The spirit is then asked for a solution to the problem.
If the problem is not related to the spirit world, then the nganga prescribes herbs to treat the illness. In addition to herbs, the medicine may also include animal parts. These traditional remedies have been perfected over the centuries and can be very effective, as in the case of quinine.
Most nganga healers and are willing to travel long distances to see their patients. They are usually compensated for the travel expenses incurred as well as for the divination and the cure. It is a common practice to make the payment for the divination beforehand, while the payment for the herbal treatment is made after completion. Aside from these income sources, most ngangas have their own land and are able to make a reasonable living.
It should be noted that the precise role of the traditional healer and the way treatments are handled vary greatly from culture to culture within Africa. Many tribes also make a distinction between herbalists/healers and witch doctors.
The term "witch doctor" often has negative connotations, and some cultures use it only to describe spiritualists who put curses on others.
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