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By Citizen Reporter


Blood cancer: Sangoma addresses cultural misconceptions around stem cell donation

According to a traditional healer, people believe that blood and other DNA samples can be used to siphon your strength or as part of a hex against you.

For a patient of African descent diagnosed with blood cancer or a blood disorder, the chances of finding a matching donor for a potentially life-saving blood stem cell transplant either on a national or international registry is less than 20%.

This is according to a German-based NGO, DKMS who explained that this is because only 10% of donors currently in the registry are of African descent.

This statistic matters because the highest chance of finding a match for someone in need of a donation comes from a patient’s own ethnic group, as similar tissue characteristics are essential for a match.

One registered donor’s experience

Sharing her experience as a registered donor and why she chose to do so, Makhosi Nomabutho, founder of Sangoma Society, asked “if trees are medicine, then how could our bodies not be medicine too?

“And, if there is medicine that lives within the blood and bones which have been lent to me by my ancestors, why shouldn’t I use it for healing and helping another person to live?”

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Speaking in her capacity as consultant to DKMS Africa, Makhosi also said; “I do not want to be in the position that a lot of people find themselves in, of not knowing where they will get a donor because there’s no amount of money or influence that can change a person’s diagnosis – only more donors of African descent can.”

Cultural beliefs

According to Makhosi, blood stem cell donation can raise issues, not only amongst traditional healers but also amongst those who use their services – accounting for approximately 45% of the population.

“Many people are cautious about their blood and blood stem cells since these contain the essence of your DNA, and can be used to siphon your strength or as part of a hex against you, so they might be reluctant to donate,” explained Makhosi. 

“Additionally, there are those who navigate the healthcare space with mistrust of Western medicine, and believe that blood and blood stem cell donation will mean that their power will be taken from them. Theories like this emanate from within the informal environment and thrive as we still recover from the impacts of colonisation. However, people then suffer when needing to find a match.”

Western and traditional medicine working together

With traditional healers having a significant influence on the way in which individuals and communities respond to cancer as a disease, its diagnosis, and its treatment, Makhosi notes that respect for Western medicine among healers is crucial. 

“Just as the work of traditional healers is God’s work, so too is medical science. If someone with blood cancer or a blood disorder, for instance, were to come see me, I would try and help them gain access to an oncologist so that they could start the appropriate treatment. 

“At the same time, I would work with them on the spiritual element of their disease. Additionally, as patients typically present with the physical manifestation of a spiritual malady, my role is to also help their doctors see this so that they can give the patient the holistic help that they need.”

She concluded by adding that the sheer volume of people who consult a traditional healer before seeing a primary healthcare practitioner (an estimated 60% and 80%) makes it necessary for both disciplines to work together when treating patients. 

“…which also means educating them and pointing them in the right direction to get treatment. Clearing up long-held, yet misguided misconceptions standing in the way of their healing forms part of this too.”

Compiled by Kaunda Selisho

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