Ghana Table of Contents

In precolonial Ghana, as in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, traditional priests were important in providing treatment for the sick. The role of village priests in the medical sphere reflected the belief that unexplained illness, misfortune, and premature death were caused by supernatural agents. In the treatment of illness, therefore, the usual process was for the priest to use divination to determine the source of the malady and to suggest sacrifices to appease the causal agents before herbal medicine was prescribed for the patient. Since the introduction of Islam in Ghana in the fourteenth century, Muslim clerics have also been known to provide spiritual treatment and protection in the form of charms and amulets derived from the Quranic beliefs.

The role of the village priests, who provided medical advice and sometimes treatment for the sick, has often been stressed over that of the herbalists, who served their communities solely as dispensers of medicinal herbs. Recent scholarship, however, has shown that villagers in the premodern era understood illness and misfortune to originate from both natural and supernatural sources. Even after a spiritually caused ailment was identified and the proper rituals performed, the final cure was usually via the application of medicinal herbs--a situation that made knowledge of the medicinal value of plants and herbs important. Herbal medicine was used in the treatment of diarrhea and stomach pains, for dressing wounds, as an antidote for poisons, and to stabilize pregnancies. Traditional healers continue to be relied upon, especially in the rural areas where modern health services are limited.

The medical value of traditional remedies varies. While the medicinal properties of herbs cannot be denied, in some cases herbs may be harmful and may result in severe infections or even death. It was for this reason that an association of traditional healers was formed in the 1960s with its headquarters at Nsawam in Greater Accra Region. The Traditional Healers' Association has tried to preserve the integrity of traditional medicinal practice. Its members have also attempted to assure the government, through the Ministry of Health, that the dispensation of herbal medicine has a role to play in modern medical practice in Ghana.

Western medicine was first introduced into the Gold Coast by Christian missionaries and missionary societies in the nineteenth century. Missionaries were almost the sole providers of modern medicine until after World War I. Important missionary medical facilities in Ghana today include Catholic-affiliated hospitals in Sunyani and Tamale, the Muslim Ahmadiyah facilities at EfiduasiAsokori , and a Presbyterian hospital at Agogo in the Eastern Region.

Attempts by the central government to expand Western medical care in the country were given serious consideration during the tenure of Frederick Gordon Guggisberg (1919-27) as governor of the Gold Coast. As part of his ten-year development program, Guggisberg proposed town improvements, improved water supply, and the construction of hospitals. It was during his era that Korle Bu, the first teaching hospital in the Gold Coast, was completed in 1925.

Since the end of World War II, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) have provided financial and technical assistance for the elimination of diseases and the improvement of health standards. A shortage of medical specialists exists, however, and local facilities for training medical personnel need to be expanded and updated. As a consequence, many Ghanaians in the immediate post-World War II period continued to rely on traditional doctors and herbalists.

Despite efforts to improve medical conditions in the decades following World War II, the first postindependence census of 1960 did not provide data on the medical situation in Ghana. There was still no regular system for gathering medical statistics by the mid-1960s and no suggestion that one would be developed by 1970. During that period, available figures were gathered from scattered samplings and were collected on a haphazard basis or were the summation of hospital records and United Nations projections. Thus, only partial information about the total health situation was available. Records from the 1984 census and newspaper reports on seminars conducted on health-related issues, especially since the mid-1980s, now make it easier to evaluate national health.

Health Care

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress