5 South African Traditional Healers honored in the USA

5 South African Traditional Healers honored in the USA

May 16

Five Traditional Healers from KwaZulu-Natal – who are central to an innovative program run in partnership with a local South African NGO and the KZN Department of Health – traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they were hosted for five days and honored for their work by the prestigious Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard.

Their trip coincided with celebratory events marking the 10-year anniversary of the Ragon, including the Institute’s work in South Africa, and culminated in a gala dinner on Friday, April 26, 2019 where it was announced that a $200 million gift from Terry and Susan Ragon was made to Massachusetts General Hospital, the largest single gift in the hospital’s 208-year history.

The Traditional Healers, Nelisiwe Zuma (from Sweetwaters); Sibongile Madlala (Snathing); Tholakele Memela (Imbali); Ngenzeni Mbhele (Elandskop) and Nokuvela Nkambule (Taylors Halt) make up the core of the Edendale Hospital based ITEACH training team – preparing other healers to provide a critical link between the community and local government clinics, and ensuring patients do not delay seeking medical care at a clinic when it is needed.


ITEACH (Integration of TB in Education and Care for HIV/AIDS) is a non-profit organization founded in 2005 and affiliated with the Ragon Institute and the HIV Pathogenesis Programme at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine and funded by philanthropic support from the Witten Family Foundation.


In partnership with the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health, ITEACH aims to strengthen HIV and TB services and to assist the Department in achieving its targets and improving clinical outcomes.


Dr. Krista Dong, founder of iTEACH, says: “Since 2009, ITEACH has been training Traditional Health Practitioners (THPs) as certified HIV counselors, who are able to provide support to the vast majority of patients who utilize both traditional and western health services, thereby ensuring safe and culturally relevant integration. To date, almost 400 THPs have been certified by ITEACH, creating a network of knowledgeable and skilled HIV care providers.”


KZN Health MEC Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo says: “We are extremely grateful to the Ragon Institute and ITEACH for the work that they are doing in our province. Their impact has been extremely visible. Traditional healers are a very important part of our society. They influence the direction of the patients in terms of seeking health. It therefore makes a lot of sense to recruit, train and convert them into ambassadors for health. We need to strengthen this program and really support it. We also congratulate the five traditional healers who went abroad, as they will come back and share their experiences with their colleagues.”


The five Traditional Health Practitioners were part of the first group to be trained and certified as HIV counselors by ITEACH in 2009. They flew over to the US on Tuesday, April 23, 2019 as guests of the Ragons. Upon their arrival in Cambridge, they were received with a welcome event held at the Ragon Institute, hosted by the Director, Bruce Walker, MD, Associate Director, Facundo Batista, PhD, senior clinician-scientists, junior investigators, fellows, graduate and undergraduate students from the Institute’s three affiliated institutions.


“It was such an honor to be part of the team that went to the US,” says Ngenzeni Mbhele, one of the five healers who made the trip. “The professors and students were so excited to see us. It brings me so much joy to see that as Traditional Health Practitioners we are so important.”


As special guests, they were escorted on tours of the research laboratories at the Ragon Institute, followed by a tour of the expansive campus and research facilities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). At both institutions, the healers and their work are already well known to many of the scientists, as the healers have hosted them on their visits to South Africa, showing them the work of ITEACH at Edendale hospital and its surrounding referral clinics, as well as in the community and from their home traditional practices in Umgungundlovu.


“There was so much interest in what we do,” Tholakele Memela, another of the healers honored at the event, adds. “We were asked a lot of questions about our work as Traditional Health Practitioners, as well as being part of the ITEACH team and working to support the Department of Health as HIV counselors.”


“Terry Ragon met the healers on his first visit to South Africa – a visit that convinced him to him get involved and ultimately to give the initial $100-million gift to establish the Ragon Institute ten years ago,” explains Dr. Dong. “Subsequently, his wife Susan Ragon, made several visits to South Africa that included spending time with the traditional healers and learning about the work they do with ITEACH and the Department. Susan Ragon drove much of the planning of the 10-year Anniversary event, and she personally ensured that the Traditional Healers were part of the gala event, which highlighted the healer’s work as part of the important accomplishments of the Ragon Institute over the past decade,” Dr. Dong adds.


A six-minute video by Durban production company East Coast TV – showcasing the work of ITEACH and other Ragon Institute projects in KwaZulu-Natal and featuring MEC Sibongiseni Dhlomo and the Traditional Healers – premiered at the event.


Following the screening, the Traditional Healers were welcomed to the stage and provided a special traditional thanks for the work of the Ragon Institute over the past decade and a blessing for continued success into the foreseeable future.


“It was such an honor for the healers to have their work highlighted at this event,” says Deli Mthimkhulu, who runs the healer integration program at ITEACH and has worked for MGH-associated research initiatives for over 15 years. Mthimkhulu travelled with the five healers to the event, and says, “We know the important role that the healers play in linking and keeping patient in HIV-care, but it is great to have it acknowledged in this way.”


Among those in attendance at the event hosted by the Ragons were Peter L. Slavin, MD, the president of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), George Q. Daley, MD, Dean of Harvard Medical School (HMS), L. Rafael Reif, PhD, President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Nobel Laureate David Baltimore, PhD, and other prominent academics, scientists and donors. Musician Sting performed at the event.


Video showcasing the work of the Ragon Institute in South Africa


This article appears on the Ragon Institute website with the permission of the author.