Faith healing in an African context

SAAP presented a seminar on the topic “Faith healing in an African context” on 13 October 2007 at UNISA.

One of the speakers was Professor S.N. Madu, Head of the Department of Psychology at the University of Limpopo.

Prof Madu was born in Nigeria and was trained in psychotherapy in Vienna.  Although he has a Western-oriented training, he believes that the concept of psycho­therapy needs to be broadened today to include the needs of the African people.

With the urbanisation of African people, the traditional rural healing methods are being replaced by modern psychotherapy.  However, it is estimated that up to 80% of the emotional problems and inter- and intra-personal conflicts of black Africans are still dealt with by faith and traditional healing.

The Western methods of therapy do not appeal to these people, in part due to the discrepancy in belief systems. They are rarely at ease in the direct approach of the individual issues, frank discussion and the confidentiality of the therapy situation.

Prof Madu used the example of a pain in the neck. In the traditional African setting, the extended family takes part in the discussion and resolution of the problem, which may be that the bewitchment is attributed to a jealous mother-in-law.

The African people are also used to a more passive role, where the traditional healer tells them what is wrong. They are dependent on the healer rather than on a rational diagnostic method. The many African languages further complicates the process, as Western therapy usually takes place in Afrikaans or English. Clients also find it difficult to attend all sessions punctually.

In the 1990s, the faith healer TB Joshua became well-known. His type of religious faith healing depends heavily on stimulation of the sensory organs – prayers, mood, music, dancing, singing and beating drums are conducive to the trance state.  This relaxes the mind, creates ecstasy and often has a very positive effect on the unwell person.  The traditional rural healer also uses many rituals, concoctions and herbs.

Prof Madu related about the “blending pot” approach: His grandmother’s food was always tastier than that of his mother, as she only had one pot for cooking all the types of food.  In counselling, a culture-centered approach would draw on the principles of psychotherapy without neglecting the belief systems aligned with traditional healers, priests and family heads and the role of the community.

Counsellors must be trained in religious faith healing. The counselling sessions must start off by finding the areas of mutual interest and agreeing on the basics.

At the University of Limpopo this approach is encouraged. Professor Madu has authored 7 books on these topics. He stated the importance of capturing the skills of traditional healers, as they rarely have writing skills and their secrets are dying with them.

Answering questions from the audience, professor Madu stressed the importance of faith in healing, as it conditions the person to be healed. The shared faith of the counsellor and client enhances the healing process and better disposes the client to healing. Miracle healing is seen as the exception.

The religious community has a major role in maintaining the mental health of its members. The counsellor cannot do it alone – he relies on the support system of the environment. An unhealthy environment impacts us all.

In addition to Christian faith healing, professor Madu has seen healing in Muslim and Hindu contexts as well. It is true that not all prayers for healing are answered. He described healing as “a huge package to be dissected, including the emotional, psychic and physical dimensions”.

The faith healer addresses the psyche or soul, resulting in a better emotional state in the client that assists in healing. The faith healer does not wait for physical healing to say that healing has taken place. Aligned expectations are therefore important.

The modern type faith healer such as TB Joshua is very limited. Some people do report a positive effect.  The role of the trance state and the relaxation of the mind are very similar to the state achieved in practising yoga, that better disposes the client to the healing of emotional problems.

Answering a question on which is the most effective method of healing, professor Mado replied that he has not evaluated the relative success of faith healing as opposed to other types of healing. As a psychologist, he could not comment on the role of an external force, be it God, Jesus or Allah.

Contact Prof Madu at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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