Witchdoctors and Healing Onions

Caught your attention now, did I? Do you ever come across these chain mails telling you how you need to make sure you don’t look at red stop lights too long for fear of brain tumors, that the president is really a different person who is under a mass disguise, that the world is ending on your next birthday, or perhaps something less extreme like leaving an open onion in each room of your house prevents sickness? I have. Then I googled.

There are tons of interesting pages or articles about the healing power of onions. Granted, my mother always told me I should eat onions; they’re “good for you”. She never cut one open and left it next to my bed overnight while I was sick. There are testimonies online saying how people felt better after opening an onion and letting it “soak up the sickness” overnight. Some even say that their onions turn black with bacteria after one night of sitting out!

I am wary of stories like these, although I do enjoy a hearty onion in my chilly or Indian dinner. They do contain many antioxidants, but soaking the sickness out of the air and into a vegetable, really? I’d love to hear if anyone has experience with this or has any other stories to share. I have a story to share myself.

When I went to Zambia for a month-long course and for cultural exposure, my class visited a local witchdoctor. He was respected amongst the local villages, and often the villagers went to him for healing before traveling to the medical institute. Indeed, sometimes his treatments “healed” them. (The power of suggestion is an impressive thing. Ever taken a placebo pill and were told it would make your headache go away, and it did?)

This witchdoctor had a few shenanigans of his own. He had an intact turtle shell with some things inside that made noise when he shook it, and he had a couple dozen bottles with different sands or spices in them that he mixed together and medicated his patients with. Sometimes he would put the spices or sand into an open wound to heal the wound. This, of course, would usually just make the wound infected and be cause for a trip to the hospital.

Here is a picture of the Zambian witchdoctor and his translator:

a Witchdoctor I met in Zambia

Witchdoctor in Zambia

When the witchdoctor has pretty tough patient cases, he consults the “wise spirits”. He showed us how he does this, as he pardoned himself to get some things from his office in the backyard and came back out with a canary yellow old school telephone which was no longer connected to the base unit. After dialing the number, he spoke into the receiver, and we heard someone or something speaking back. Unbelievable! The majority of us also happened to notice that the witchdoctor was subtly squeezing a squeaky toy in his fist every time we heard the spirits talk – couldn’t fool us!

While we shouldn’t be deaf to alternative ways of treatment, medicine still needs to be science-based and should undergo scientific studies and testing in order to be taken seriously. I find no harm in eating onions, blinking at traffic lights, or questioning a politician’s motives. When some things get to point of hurting rather than healing someone, it is time to speak up. “Primum non nocere” means, “first, do no harm” and is a value that has been present in medicine since the 1800s. It’s a good motto to live by as we help administer patient-centered care.