At least half of Zimbabwe’s population are failing to access health services due to poverty ending up turning to traditional healers as the last line of defence against the most contagious and debilitating diseases that plague their lives.

According to the Poverty Income Consumption and Expenditure Survey that was launched by Finance minister Tendai Biti last week, at least 50 percent of Zimbabwe receives their primary health care from traditional healers, herbalists and prophets.

“About 50.5 percent of the poorest people go to traditional healers and this is not health for a country that is educated. Cost is indicated as the most significant barrier to accessing treatment when household members are ill,” said Biti.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 80 percent of people in Africa regularly seek the services of traditional healers at one point or the other and that is not about to change in Zimbabwe.

The Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (ZimStat) says six out of 10 Zimbabweans live in poverty making accessing health a secondary concern for many people in Zimbabwe.

With hospitals now beyond the reach of many, Zimbabweans who have always been steeped in timeless tradition are turning to prophets and traditional healers for medication.

While one needs to fork out at least more than $10.00 for consultation fees at the cheaper public hospitals, traditional doctors are far cheaper charging as low as $1.00 for consultation and as for prophets they prescribe their holy water free of charge.

“We do not charge anything because people are healed by God and not man, if a person however sees improvements in his life then he can bring a token of appreciation and this is not a must,” said a prophet in Harare.

Although the country’s health delivery system is on a mend, many people say lowly paid public health professionals, such as nurses, are coarse.

People as a result are opting for traditional healers, who do not always demand cash up front and by far outnumber doctors.

Zimbabwe has about two doctors per every 10 000 patients and seven nurses per every 10 000 patients while prophets and traditional healers are literally everywhere.

Once shunned by many Zimbabweans, herbs have become very popular in the country and minister of Health, Henry Madzorera,  said the government is not exploiting the full potential of the natural remedies.

“We are trying to codify all the herbs that are available and then modify them. We have very good herbs but we have not been testing them,” said Madzorera.

Medical practitioners accuse prophets of wasting people time dispensing holy water.

“When people come to our hospitals from prophets they will be wasted and frail because prophets only give water and nothing more,” said a health official from Chitungwiza Hospital.

At prophets shrines dotted across the country or even at backyards people are not given any drugs but rather holy water or better still tiny pebbles—in some cases the afflicted are required to bring milk and even eggs—the believers say the remedies are magical.

Madzorera says there is nothing that can stop people from accessing traditional medication since there is no law against the tradition.

“There is no law that prohibits people from going to traditional healers or prophets. What we do as the ministry of health is to educate people on the importance of the accessing heath when there are sick. But some because of belief prefer the traditional medication,” he said.

Doctors trained in the Western sciences largely focus on the biomedical causes of disease, while traditional beliefs take a more holistic approach.

Like in most parts of Africa here traditional healers are reputed to divine the cause of a person’s illness or social problems by throwing bones to interpret the will of dead ancestors.

Some traditional healers say they carry the ancestral spirit through their bodies. Many have in-depth knowledge of plant materials and their various curative powers. They use leaves, seeds, stems, bark or roots to treat symptoms.

Most traditional healers are both herbalists and diviners, but some specialize in one aspect. Many doctors believe healers to be charlatans, preying on the superstitions of local families. This is true in some but not all cases.