AFRICAN STUDIES QUARTERLY

Volume 10, Issue 4
Spring 2009

Kwasi Konadu. Indigenous Medicine and Knowledge in African Society. New York: Routledge, 2007. 240p.


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The historical analysis of conceptions of health and healing in many traditional African societies offer an interesting avenue for the study of the contradictions and ambivalences within definitions of medical knowledge and the concept of disease. Indigenous Medicine and Knowledge in African Society brings to mind the challenges of writing and investigating the therapeutic knowledge of indigenous societies and provides important suggestions for the study of medicine and knowledge systems in Africa. As much about therapeutic knowledge as about culture, it adds to our understanding of the resilience of traditional practices in contemporary Africa. Kwasi Konadu consciously modeled his discussion of traditional Bono-Takyiman (Akan, Ghana) medical knowledge to refute the work of Dennis M. Warren in “Religion, Disease, and Medicine among the Bono-Takyiman,” which relied on the healing knowledge of one traditional healer (Nana Kofi Donkor) as the baseline data in looking at the work of several indigenous healers.

Konadu argues that although Warren’s work is laudable, “it must be stated that the experiences, perceptions, and levels of competence amongst healers are not identical, and to use one person as a standard or benchmark seems problematic in the articulation of an ‘ethnomedical system’ authenticated by so few sources that possess equivalent levels of in-depth medical knowledge and aptitude” (xxix). Konadu also hopes for his work to serve as foundation on which future research into indigenous medicine and knowledge would be embedded. He laments that the production of indigenous knowledge from the perspectives of producers and users has received the disdain and little consideration from African scholars and medical practitioners (12). Konadu contends that these Africans have failed to recognize or even accept that the process of indigenous medicine has now been “scientifically demystified,” in addition to the vast medicinal knowledge acquired through pragmatic experiences and close natural observations (172).

For his own part, Konadu relies on oral interviews, material culture, linguistic data, historical, and other archaeological sources to investigate the ways in which “Bono-Takyiman healers and indigenous archives of Akan cultural knowledge conceptualize and interpret medicine and healing” (xxx). In so doing, he provides a complete outlook of how indigenous healers conceptualize medicine and how that conceptualization translates into their healing practices. Indigenous Medicine and Knowledge in African Society will undoubtedly appeal to the intellectual response of scholars in various academic areas, particularly, scholars in West African and African history, African Diaspora, and in Atlantic history. Others interested in health, disease, medicine, ethnicity, and identity will find the author’s thesis and direction of argument insightful.

Ghana’s colonial past and political economy reflects in the country’s traditional health and healing practices. As Konadu asserts, the colonial administration, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, suppressed indigenous medicine specialists with an introduction of biomedicine into the country. The postcolonial era interfaced with military coups and economic failures equally affected the nature of the indigenous healers’ vocation (2-3). The dependence of West African nations on “foreign aid” and their continuation of colonial economic policies have resulted in rapid ecological changes, which not “only disturb and facilitate vectors of infectious diseases, but also severely limit crop and medicinal plant development.” From hence, Konadu discusses the activities of the practitioners of Bono-Takyiman therapeutic system in the context of Bono socio-political history. The discussion provides an overview of the Bono cosmological system with the author arguing, “Bono cosmology is a ‘living’ entity, arising out of the process of culture development—which may be impeded but is continuous as long as people of that culture exist—and from an experiential reference for Bono existence,” (38). Thus, specialists of Bono-Takyiman therapeutic system situate their curative ideas and conceptions directly in the Akan cosmology. In the Akan tradition, the human being is “spirit encapsulated” rather than “matter-animated,” thus, the fundamental nature of the human being is spirit and any attempt at healing the human body should be spirit-oriented. By such a design, traditional healers serve as experts of the complex cultural system and its spiritual conventions.

A brief overview of the traditional healers’ perspectives on the environmental context of their healing practices ends the discussion in chapter one; with the author using chapters three to five to elucidate the indigenous conceptions of medicine as held by the Bono healers. Konadu describes the essence of both tangible and abstract ideas as they relate to medicinal notions and practices, and a cultural-linguistic analysis of those medicines most commonly used because of their effectiveness. He also explores some of the central Akan indigenous knowledge annals, for instance, proverbs, gold weights, adinkra symbolism, and oral narrative, to gain a better perspective on what these annals reveal about Akan medicinal conceptions. In his conclusion, Konadu reiterates his overall disenchantment with African scholars and biomedical practitioners and his earlier objection to the work of Warren. He argues that in order to access the depth of knowledge and sensibilities that provide more than a ‘glimpse’ into the nature and workings of traditional healing institutions, a person has “to be ‘born into’ the varied spiritual-cultural Bono institutions, rather than arrive as a researcher or participant-observer,” (158). African scholars who ignore indigenous knowledge systems, according to Konadu, “are largely divorced from their indigenous cultural reality and values.” These intellectuals “uncritically” accept and identify with Eurocentric conceptualization of Africa to the extent they have “created African versions of Western things,” (179).

Konadu’s final analysis is that the Bono spiritual-temporal forms the foundation upon which the healing practices of indigenous healers depend. Konadu’s account is thoughtful, well researched, and likely to provoke discussion from African historians of health and medicine and even from scientists. The inclusion of a comprehensive glossary containing the translation of some Akan words, an example of Akan libation, a map of Ghana, and the map of the district of Bono-Takyiman complements the actual content of the book. Nonetheless, the extensive use of Akan words, while useful and easy for the Akan language speaker, becoming distracting and confusing for the non-speaker having to sometimes go back to the glossary to check the meaning of some words not explained in the text. As a Ghanaian and presumably an Akan, Konadu’s mistranslation of some Akan words leaves much to be desired. Writing that mmogya (blood) is synonymous with abusua (lineage) and translating it as “matrilineage” gives the wrong implication. His intention was to show that in the Akan tradition, lineage comes through the bloodline of the maternal side, yet blood is not necessary identical to lineage. I must however stress that the minor translation errors in the book only serve a distraction for the native speaker of the Akan language and does not, in anyway, mar the author’s trajectory of thought, discussions, and arguments. The text is well written and accessible to a wide range of researchers and graduate students of African history.

Sandra Amponsah
University of Texas at Austin