Creating a Bridge in Approach & Understanding

Alougou Makpete, President of Network of Traditional Healers

The feverish five-year-old child writhed in pain—screaming and crying—unable to move his head from side to side. His skin burned to the touch, yet his hands and feet were cold. He was vomiting and seemed to have a difficult time staying awake. All of this was clear evidence to his concerned parents that he had been cursed by a sorcerer. They needed Alougou Makpete, a local traditional healer based in Sarakawa, to reverse the spell and save their child.

Traditional healers or Charlatans, as they are sometimes known in francophone West Africa, are more esteemed than one might expect from the connotations of snake oil hucksters, hustlers, and con artists often conjured by the term in other parts of the world.  In Togo, where Animism—a traditional belief system in which animals, objects, and spirits possess supernatural energy that animates the universe—is widely practiced, often alongside other religions. Charlatans are practitioners of these traditional medical practices. They are often first responders when a child takes ill, a pregnancy becomes complicated, or other health issues arise.

Alougou Makpete is President of the Traditional Healers based in Sarakawa. He is a natural healer imbued with power from the heavens. It was a calling that came on so strongly when he was 15 that he dropped out of school to practice healing full time. Medicinal plants, herbs, and leaves naturally spoke to him, revealed their properties, and helped present themselves to heal his patients.

In 2013, Alougou Makpete began to respond to a different calling. Children in Sarakawa were dying. “People would take their children to other charlatans, and they wouldn’t be able to heal them,” Alougou Makpete explains. “Before we knew about modern medicine, we would look for remedies to fix the problem and ultimately end up making things worse.” Natural remedies were creating health issues. Alougou Makpete began to see his role as helping traditional healers to learn and adopt a more comprehensive understanding of health and medicine.

When Integrate Health expanded into the community of Sarakawa in 2015, it was clear that traditional healers played an important role in the community. Rather than advocate against traditional practices, Integrate Health decided to approach the traditional healers with an offer to provide trainings on maternal and child health. These trainings introduced evidence-based medical practices such as the identification of danger signs in children and pregnant women. Rather than trying to displace the centuries of intertwined health and religious belief with Western medical practices, Integrate Health educated traditional healers on identifying symptoms, making referrals to Community Health Workers and clinics, and bridging the styles of practice so that traditional healers could serve a critical referral role in the health system.

Alougou Makpete was an early adopter of the ideas introduced through the training. He was deeply influenced by Integrate Health’s desire to collaborate with him. He began incorporating new methods into his usual approach. Before the training, Alougou Makpete explains there was little concept of evidence-based medicine, but this education was done in a way that connected traditional beliefs with contemporary understanding. Using his role as President, Alougou Makpete was able to mobilize other traditional healers to attend the training as well and adopt the new practices.

The results quickly became obvious.

“Before, you might have five or six children who would die in a day, but now it is rare to have that,” Alougou Makpete states enthusiastically of the difference. “People are doing better and living healthier now.”

Back with the family of the cursed five-year-old, Alougou Makpete noticed the boy could not move his head from side to side. He considered the symptoms and suspected meningitis, not magic, was responsible for the child’s condition. He informed the parents that he wanted to take the boy to the hospital where he could receive treatment. His suspicions were confirmed when they arrived, and as a result, the boy’s life was saved.

In 2017, there were 116 traditional healers like Alougou Makpete trained by Integrate Health. As a result, there have been fewer infant deaths and illnesses as child mortality rates continue to go down.