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What Is an Inyanga?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 05 December 2016
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An inyanga is a practitioner of traditional African medicine in South Africa. Izinyanga use a variety of tools in the practice of their trade, such as herbal medicines, ceremonies, and traditional magic. They may be male or female, and receive training through apprenticeship with experienced providers. Some organizations working on increasing access to medicine in Africa work with practitioners like izinyanga to educate members of the public and provide them with a range of options for medical treatment.

When a patient approaches an inyanga for treatment, she interviews the patient and the family, considering the whole body rather than the specific symptoms. In the branch of traditional African medicine practiced by these health care providers, illness is believed to be the result of an imbalance in the spirit or a social imbalance, and some practitioners may believe that illnesses have their roots in magic as well. The inyanga must consider the specifics of the case and decide how to proceed with treatment.

Herbal medicine is the primary avenue of treatment, and can include a variety of herbal products like leaves, flowers, roots, stems, and bark. Tisanes and other preparations are available for patients. The inyanga may also perform rituals to address spiritual imbalances. Patients can also consult a sangoma, a practitioner who relies on visions and divination to learn more about a health problem. These practitioners are more likely to use ceremonies in patient treatment than herbs.

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The inyanga can prepare an herbal medicament known as a muti to treat the patient. It may be applied topically or taken internally, depending on the circumstances of the case. In addition to herbs, izinyanga also use animal products in medical treatment. They may wildcraft components for health treatment or contract members of the community to collect them for trade or fees.

Like other fields of traditional medicine, these practices are not necessarily incompatible with allopathic medicine. It is possible for a conventional physician to integrate aspects of traditional and allopathic care or to work with an inyanga in the treatment of a patient. Researchers with an interest in patient outcomes and medical practices note that retaining traditional practices can be important for psychological reasons in the treatment of disease. Patients who feel free to seek treatment from providers who come from a variety of backgrounds may achieve better outcomes than those who are forced to adhere to an allopathic treatment, or who only seek treatment from an inyanga out of fear of conventional doctors.

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