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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 February 2016

The University of Texas, Austin


For generations, healers sustained medical knowledge in African communities through oral communication. During the twentieth century, healers who learned to read and write used literacy as a vehicle for establishing medical authority. In particular, literate healers lobbied colonial and national governments for recognition, wrote medical guidebooks, advertised in African newspapers, and sent letters to other healers to organise their profession. This article examines the case of literate healers in colonial and postcolonial Ghana living near the twin port cities of Sekondi and Takoradi. There, an early organisation of ‘Scientific African Herbalists’ and later, the ‘Ghana Psychic and Traditional Healing Association,’ used literacy to reclaim the public's trust in their medical expertise. An examination of literacy shows historical avenues for professional formation and the continued quest for medical legitimacy and respectability.

Healing and Literacy in Ghana
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2016 

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1 J. A. Kwesi Aaba, African Herbalism: A Mine of Health, Part I (Sekondi, 1934), vii. According to this book and a roster of early photographers, his second name has been spelled both Ankonam and Aukinam. See Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain, The Photographic Journal (1928), 329.

2 Aaba, African Herbalism, 1.

3 Ghanaian biochemist Ivan Addae-Mensah shared his copy with me, which he obtained from one of Aaba's relatives, see Addae-Mensah, Towards a Rational Scientific Basis for Herbal Medicine: A Phytochemist's Two-Decade Contribution (Accra, 1992), 2. Aaba's text is referenced in K. David Patterson, Health in Colonial Ghana: Disease, Medicine, and Socio-Economic Change, 1900–55 (Waltham, MA, 1981), 28–9. I located further archival evidence both in the Accra and Cape Coast Branches of the National Archives. The SAH is briefly noted in S. Addae, The Evolution of Modern Medicine in a Developing Country: Ghana 1880–1960 (Durham, 1996), 13; K. Senah, K. Adusei, S. Akor, E. N. Mensah, and N. O. Agyentutu III, A Baseline Study into Traditional Medicine Practice in Ghana (Accra, 2001), 7–8. To my knowledge, GPTHA correspondence provided to me by Michael Acquah and available in the Sekondi Branch of the Ghana Public Records and Archives Administration Department, and papers of the Faculty of Pharmacy at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology have not been described elsewhere.

4 On the history of colonial vaccination in the Gold Coast, see Addae, Evolution of Modern Medicine; Patterson, Health in Colonial Ghana. For a broader view on colonial Africa see L. White, Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa (Berkeley, CA, 2000), 101–2; M. Lyons, The Colonial Disease: A Social History of Sleeping Sickness in Northern Zaire, 1900–40 (Cambridge; New York, 1992), 229.

5 Addae, Evolution of Modern Medicine, 68–9.

6 A. D. Osseo-Asare, Bitter Roots: The Search for Healing Plants in Africa (Chicago, 2014), 131–64.

7 Mechanic, D., ‘The functions and limitations of trust in the provision of medical care’, Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, 23 (1998), 661–86CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Prescosolido, B. A., Tuch, S. A., and Martin, J. K., ‘The profession of medicine and the public: examining Americans' changing confidence in physician authority from the beginning of the “health care crisis” to the era of health care reform’, Journal of Health and Social behavior, 42 (2001), 116CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Hall, M. A., Dugan, E., Zheng, B., and Mishra, A. K., ‘Trust in physicians and medical institutions: what is it, can it be measured, and does it matter?’, Milbank Quarterly, 79 (2001), 613–39CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

9 Allsop, J., ‘Regaining trust in medicine: professional and state strategies’, Current Sociology, 54 (2006), 621–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 K. E. Flint, Healing Traditions: African Medicine, Cultural Exchange, and Competition in South Africa, 1820–1948 (Athens, OH; Scottsville, 2008), 143–50; P. A. Twumasi, Medical Systems in Ghana: A Study in Medical Sociology (Accra-Tema, 1975); P. A. Twumasi and D. M. Warren, ‘The professionalization of indigenous medicine: a comparative study of Ghana and Zambia’, in M. Last and G. L. Chavunduka (eds.), The Professionalisation of African Medicine (Manchester, 1986), 117–36; Twumasi, P. A., ‘History of pluralistic medical systems: a sociological analysis of the Ghanaian Case’, A Quarterly Journal of Africanist Opinion, 9 (1979), 2934CrossRefGoogle Scholar; J. M. Janzen, with the collaboration of W. Arkinstall and foreward by C. Leslie, The Quest for Therapy in Lower Zaire (Berkeley, 1978), 37–66.

11 M. Biagioli and P. Galison, ‘Introduction’, in M. Biagioli and P. Galison (eds.), Scientific Authorship: Credit and Intellectual Property in Science (New York, 2014), 1–7.

12 A. Olawale, ‘The role of oral literature in Yoruba herbal medical practice’, in Russell H. Kaschula (ed.), African Oral Literature: Functions in Contemporary Contexts (Claremont, CA, 2001), 72–90, 72.

13 Tola Pearce, ‘Professional interests and the creation of medical knowledge in Nigeria’, in M. Last and G. L. Chavunduka (eds.), The Professionalisation of African Medicine (Manchester, UK; Dover, NH, 1986), 237–58.

14 J. M. Janzen, Ngoma: Discourses of Healing in Central and Southern Africa (Berkeley, 1992), 144.

15 G. M. Waite, A History of Traditional Medicine and Health Care in Pre-Colonial East-Central Africa (Lewiston, NY, 1992), 23–6; C. Ehret, An African Classical Age: Eastern and Southern Africa in World History, 1000 B. C. to A. D. 400 (Charlottesville, 1998), 23–8.

16 Flint, Healing Traditions; J. M. Janzen, Lemba, 1650–1930: A Drum of Affliction in Africa and the New World (New York, 1982), 30–2. On Arabic texts written in medicinal inks before digestion, see S. A. Langwick, Bodies, Politics, and African Healing: the Matter of Maladies in Tanzania (Bloomington, 2011), 93; D. Owusu-Ansah, Islamic Talismanic Tradition in 19th Century Asante (Lewiston, NY, 1991), 108–12; D. Owusu-Ansah, ‘Prayer, amulets, and healing’, in N. Levtzion and R. L. Pouwels (eds.), The History of Islam in Africa (Athens, OH, 2000), 477–88.

17 On medical pluralism, see Twumasi, Medical Systems in Ghana; Twumasi and Warren, ‘Ghana and Zambia’; Janzen, Arkinstall, and Leslie, Therapy in Lower Zaire. On the occult in African healing, see E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande (Oxford, 1937), 105; P. Geschiere, The Modernity of Witchcraft: Politics and the Occult in Postcolonial Africa (Richmond, VA, 1997), 63–4; A. Ashforth, Witchcraft, Violence, and Democracy in South Africa (Chicago, 2005), 294; P. Geschiere, ‘Witchcraft and the limits of the law: Cameroon and South Africa’, in J. Comaroff and J. L. Comaroff (eds.), Law and Disorder in the Postcolony (Chicago, 2006), 219–46.

18 On the history of animism, see J. M. Allman and J. Parker, Tongnaab: the History of a West African God (Bloomington, 2005), 220. Twumasi established a vibrant field of medical sociology in Ghana. See Twumasi, Medical Systems in Ghana; Twumasi, ‘Pluralistic medical systems’; K. A. Senah, Money be Man: The Popularity of Medicines in a Rural Ghanaian Community (Amsterdam, 1997), 98; G. K. Nukunya, P. A. Twumasi, and N. O. Addo, ‘Attitudes towards health and disease in Ghanaian society’, in J. M. Assimeng (ed.), Traditional Life, Culture and Literature in Ghana (New York, 1976), 113–36; K. Appiah-Kubi, Man Cures, God Heals: Religion and Medical Practice among the Akans of Ghana (Totowa, NJ, 1981), 43–5; Fosu, G. B., ‘Disease classification in rural Ghana: framework and implications for health behaviour’, Social Science and Medicine, 15B (1981), 471–82Google Scholar; Sarpong, P., ‘Answering why? The Ghanaian concept of disease’, Contact, 84 (1985), 210Google Scholar; Anyinam, C., ‘Traditional medical practice in contemporary Ghana: a dying or growing “profession”?’, Canadian Journal of African Studies, 21 (1987), 315–36Google Scholar; H. Fink, Religion, Disease and Healing in Ghana: A Case Study of Dormaa Medicine (Munchen, 1990), 239–50; P. Ventevogel, Whiteman's Things: Training and Detraining Healers in Ghana (Amsterdam, 1996).

19 Ghana Ministry of Health Traditional and Alternative Medicine Directorate, Traditional and Alternative Medicines Census Report on the Three Northern Regions of Ghana (Accra, 2002).

20 Addae, Evolution of Modern Medicine, 13.

21 Senah et al., Traditional Medicine Practice, 26.

22 In the case of Odùmósù, the zealous detail evident in his texts brought legal action on the part of competing herbalists and enemies. S. Adebajo, ‘Dr Odumosu's contribution to Yoruba studies’, Yoruba Ideas, 1 (1997), 99–104.

23 Flint, Healing Traditions; S. Kanté, Méthode pratique d'éctriture N'ko (Kankan, Guinea, 1961); D. W. Oyler, The History of the N'ko Alphabet and its Role in Mande Transnational Identity: Words as Weapons (Cherry Hill, NJ, 2005), 95; C. Burns, ‘Louisa Mvembe: a woman's advice to the public on the cure of various diseases’, Kronos (1996), 108–34; I. H. Abdalla, Islam, Medicine, and Practitioners in Northern Nigeria (Lewiston, NY, 1997), 89–116; M. Griaule, Le livre de recettes d'un dabtara abyssin (Paris, 1930), 1–6; S. Streclcyn, Medecine et plantes d'Ethiopie; les traites medicaux ethiopiens (Warszawa, 1968).

24 For the latter in Ghana: E. Evans-Anfom, Traditional Medicine in Ghana: Practice, Problems and Prospects (Accra, 1986); Policy Research and Strategic Planning Institute-Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research, Ghana Herbal Pharmacopoiea (Accra, 1992); O. B. Dokosi, Herbs of Ghana (Accra, 1998), xiii–xviii; N. R. Mshana, D. K. Abbiw, I Addae-Mensah, E. Adjanouhoun, M. R. A. Ahyi, J. A. Ekpere, E. G. Enow-Orock, Z. O. Gbile, G. K. Noamesi, M. A. Odei, H. Odunlami, A. A. Oteng-Yeboah, K. Sarpong, A. Sofowora, and A. N. Tackie, Traditional Medicine and Pharmacopoeia: Contribution to the Revision of Ethnobotanical and Floristic Studies in Ghana (Accra, 2000), 1.

25 Aaba, African Herbalism, vii.

26 H. M. Feinberg, Africans and Europeans in West Africa: Elminans and Dutchmen on the Gold Coast During the Eighteenth Century (Philadelphia, 1989), 2.

27 On European choral music in Lagos and at St Gregory's in particular, see, V. K. Agawu, Representing African Music: Postcolonial Notes, Queries, Positions (New York, 2003), 12–3; M. J. C. Echeruo, Victorian Lagos: Aspects of Nineteenth Century Lagos life (London, 1977), 70–1.

28 ‘Seccondee’, The Gold Coast Leader, 2–9 Aug. 1919; ‘Address to Bishop Hinsley by the Knights of Marshall’, signed by Grand Knight Jos. A. Kwesi Aaba and others, The Gold Coast Times, 14 Dec. 1929; ‘Founding Fathers’, Marshallans Noble Order, 2007–08 (9 Dec. 2011) (

29 E. Coué and J. L. Orton, Coué-Orton Intensive Course (London, 1926); Rapp, D. R., ‘“Better and better –” Couéism as a psychological craze of the twenties in England’, Studies in Popular Culture, 10 (1987), 1736Google Scholar.

30 Britain, The Photographic Journal, 329.

31 ‘Gold Coast: Census of the Population, 1911’ (Accra, 1912), Appendix N.

32 A. W. Cardinall, The Gold Coast, 1931: A Review of Conditions in the Gold Coast in 1931 as Compared with those of 1921, Based on Figures and Facts Collected by the Chief Census Officer of 1931, Together with a Historical, Ethnographical and Sociological Suvey of the People of the Country (Accra, 1932), 189.

33 ‘Gold Coast Catholics Secondary School Fund’, The Gold Coast Leader, 27 Aug. 1921.

34 Aaba cofounded in 1926 an indigenous West African social organisation which took its inspiration from the Knights of Columbus in the United States; they named their organisation the Noble Order of the Marshall after the Scottish colonial official James Marshall, who revived Catholicism in the Gold Coast in 1880.The Knights and Ladies of Marshall continue to flourish in Ghana, with ‘Supreme Headquarters in Sekondi’ and nearly 100 ‘Councils’ and ‘Courts’ throughout West Africa and the UK, the organisation ‘aims at bringing Catholic men (and women) together in the practice of Unity, Charity and Service.’ See (

35 Sekyi's papers at the Public Records and Archives Administration office in Cape Coast, PRAAD (C) included: F. R. Irvine, Plants of the Gold Coast (London, 1930).

36 Addae, Evolution of Modern Medicine, 13; Senah, Baseline Study, 7–8.

37 PRAAD (C) CPC 1/85, Society of African Herbalists, ‘Programme for Improving the Practice of African Medical Herbalists’.

38 Ghana Public Records and Archives Administration Department in Accra (PRAAD) CSO 11/1/248, ‘Native Herbal Medicine Practitioners, Question of Recognition of, by Government Medical Authorities’. Also, PRAAD (C) ADM 23/1/441, ‘Native Medicine Practitioners and Licence of Native Doctors’, 1922–49.

39 PRAAD CSO 11/1/248.

40 Patterson, Health in Colonial Ghana, 28–9.

41 Ibid. 29.

42 Bhabha, H., ‘Of mimicry and man: the ambivalence of colonial discourse’, October, 28 (1984), 125–33CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

43 Here I draw on Biagioli, M., ‘The instability of authorship: credit and responsibility in contemporary biomedicine’, The FASEB Journal, 12 (1998), 316CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

44 Described in PRAAD (C) ADM 231/1/622, ‘Fetishes’, ‘Witch-finding – prohibition of’ from Secretary for Native Affairs to Commissioners of the Central Province (Cape Coast and Saltpond), Dec. 1937 and PRAAD CSO 21/1/1, ‘Witch Doctor at Suhum – complaint against’, 1930–1, ‘Smelling out Witches at Suhum’; and The Gold Coast Times, 18 Jan. 1930. Also, Gray, N., ‘Witches, oracles, and colonial law: evolving anti-witchcraft practices in Ghana, 1927–32’, International Journal of African Historical Studies, 34 (2001), 339–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

45 Langwick, Maladies in Tanzania, 40; F. Staugård and S. VanDam Anderson, Traditional Medicine in Botswana (Gaborone, 1985); G. L. Chavunduka, ‘Zinatha: the organisation of traditional medicine in Zimbabwe’, in M. Last and G. L. Chavunduka (eds.), The Professionalisation of African Medicine (Manchester, 1986), 29–49, 31; Gray, A., ‘Review of Legislation, 1903: British Empire VI. West Africa’, Journal of Comparative Legislation and International Law (1905), 417–26Google Scholar.

46 Aaba, African Herbalism, viii.

47 Twumasi, Medical Systems in Ghana; Twumasi, ‘Pluralistic Medical Systems’; Twumasi, Patrick A., ‘Ashanti Traditional Medicine’, Transition (1972), 5063CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

48 Aaba, African Herbalism, 8.

49 Ibid. 6.

50 Ibid. vi.

51 Ibid. vi.

52 Ibid. 9.

53 Osseo-Asare, Bitter Roots.

54 R. Jefferies, Class, Power and Ideology in Ghana: The Railwaymen of Sekondi (London, 1978), 9–23; K. A. Busia, Report on a Social Survey of Sekondi-Takoradi (London, 1950), 48.

55 Aaba, African Herbalism, 23.

56 Ibid. vi, emphasis added.

57 Ibid. vi, emphasis added.

58 Ibid. viii. Also cited in Addae-Mensah, Basis for Herbal Medicine, 2–3.

59 Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology Faculty of Pharmacy Administrative Papers (KNUST) PD/39, ‘National Research Council Minutes etc.’, letter from Mr. Quansah to Local Herbs Committee, 19 June 1961.

60 Aaba, African Herbalism.

61 K. T. Vieta, The Flagbearers of Ghana: Profiles of One Hundred Distinguished Ghanaians (Accra, 1999), 614.

62 The term ‘traditional medicine’ first gained currency in Ghana and other parts of Africa before its appropriation at the World Health Organization. WHO, ‘The Promotion and Development of Traditional Medicine’, World Health Organization Technical Report Series (Geneva: WHO, 1978), 8.

63 PRAAD SC21/10/1, ‘Mind and thought in primitive society: a study in ethno-philosophy with special reference to the Akan People of the Gold Coast, West Africa’ (uncompleted PhD thesis begun at the University of Pennsylvania).

64 PRAAD ADM 5/4/129, ‘Observations on Traditional Healing Methods in Ghana, A Paper read at the first conference of the Ghana Science Association, April, 1961’, 1962.

65 Vieta, Flagbearers of Ghana, 612–16. See also, P. A. Twumasi and D. M. Warren, ‘The professionalization of indigenous medicine: a comparative study of Ghana and Zambia’, in M. Last and G. L. Chavunduka (eds.), The Professionalisation of African Medicine (Manchester, 1986), 117–36.

66 On respectability and African nationalism, see J. Iliffe, Honour in African History (New York, 2004), 306–27.

67 Minutes of Meeting at Shama Junction, punctuation and emphasis added in Michael Acquah Personal Papers, Folder 4, ‘Correspondence, Ghana Psychic and Traditional Healing Association, Western Region’, 1963–70.

68 Public Records and Archives Administration Office, Sekondi: PRAAD (S) WRG8/1/265, ‘Psychic and Traditional Healing Association, 1963–65’, letter from J. K. Stephens, Regional Secretary of GPTHA to District Commissioner, Shama District, 13 Feb. 1963, emphasis added.

69 Michael Acquah Personal Papers, Folder 4, Minutes of the Meeting of the Ghana Psychic and Traditional Healing Association held at Shama Junction on Friday 29 Nov. 1963.

70 Michael Acquah Personal Papers, Folder 4, Minutes of the Meeting of the Ghana Psychic and Traditional Healing Association held at Shama-Junction on Saturday 2 May 1964. Also, PRAAD (S) WRG 8/1/265.

71 D. Brokensha, ‘Akwapim Handbook’ (Accra-Tema, 1972), 186.

72 Aaba, J. A. Kwesi, ‘Our foods in health and disease’, The Ghanaian, 6 (1958), 19Google Scholar, 25. See also, Aaba, Kwesi, ‘African herbal enemas’, The Ghanaian, 9 (1959), 32Google Scholar.

73 On the limits of using oral history to excavate the colonial record in Ghana, see Roberts, J., ‘Korle and the mosquito: histories and memories of the anti-malaria campaign in Accra, 1942–5’, The Journal of African History, 51 (2010), 343–65CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Allman, J., ‘Making mothers: missionaries, medical officers and women's work in Colonial Asante, 1924–45’, History Workshop Journal, 38 (1994), 2347CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

74 Michael Acquah Personal Papers, Folder 2, ‘Correspondence, Ghana Psychic and Traditional Healers Association, Western Region’, 1970–7, memorandum of the Ghana Psychic and Traditional Healers Association Ltd., 1 Oct. 1973, emphasis added.

75 There is also evidence of a similar organisation among Ga healers that may have helped to inspire GPTHA. See Patterson, Health in Colonial Ghana, 28–9; Senah, Baseline Study, 7–8.

76 Michael Acquah Personal Papers, Folder 4, address list for Ghana Psychic and Traditional Healing Association Western Region, c. Jan. 1964.

77 Quartey was perhaps too much of a leader, conspiring to hold separate meetings with less satisfied members of the Bibani district association. Michael Acquah Personal Papers, Folder 4, letter from J. K. Annan to Cecilia Quartey, Bibiani, 2 Mar. 1964.

78 Ibid.

79 Although, highly trained academics threatened Nkrumah's regime, including the thought leader and lawyer J. B. Danquah who died in prison. See K. Botwe-Asamoah, Kwame Nkrumah's Politico-Cultural Thought and Policies: An African-Centered Paradigm for the Second Phase of the African Revolution (New York, 2005), 44–5; E. A. Haizel, ‘Education in Ghana, 1951–61’, in K. Arhin (ed.), The Life and Work of Kwame Nkrumah: Papers of a Symposium Organized by the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, Legon (Trenton, NJ, 1993), 53–81.

80 Michael Acquah Personal Papers, Folder 4, letter from P. K. Owusu, District Secretary, Sefwi Bekwai, to Okumfuo Kwabena Brentu and Kwasi Ampong, Sefwi Bekwai/Ampenkro regarding ‘Ghana Psychic and Traditional Healing Association Sefwi Anhwiaso Bekwai District: Handing over of Properties’.

81 PRAAD (S) WRG 8/1/265, letter from District Commissioner, Shama to Nana Omanhene, Shama, 6 Oct. 1964.

82 Michael Acquah Personal Papers, Folder 4, Executive Officer, D.C.'s Office, Bibiani, Probe into the Accounts of the Bibiani Branch of the Ghana Psychic and Traditional healing Association, 15 Aug. 1964.

83 Ibid. emphasis added.

84 J. Illife, East African Doctors: A History of the Modern Profession (Cambridge, 1998).

85 Addae, Evolution of Modern Medicine, 303. Addae notes that the Ghana Medical Association was a merger of the Ghana Branch of the British Medical Association and the Ghana Medical Practitioners Union.

86 Mensah-Dapaa, ‘Observations on Traditional Healing Methods’.

87 N. R. Hunt, A Colonial Lexicon of Birth Ritual, Medicalization, and Mobility (Durham, 1999), 79.

88 J. Livingston, Debility and the Moral Imagination in Botswana (Bloomington, 2005), 209.

89 E. Laing, ‘Documentation and protection of biodiversity, with comments on protecting the intellectual rights of the traditional medical practitioner’, Traditional Medicine and Modern Health Care: Partnership for the Future-Report on a Two-Day National Consensus Building Symposium on the Policies on Traditional Medicine in Ghana, 15th–16th March 1995 (Accra, 1995), 59–69.

90 Flint, Healing Traditions, 5.

91 K. Gyekye, Tradition and Modernity: Philosophical Reflections on the African Experience (New York, 1997), 106; K. Wiredu, ‘Our problem of knowledge: brief reflections on knowledge and development in Africa’, in Ivan Karp and D. A. Masola (eds.), African Philosophy as Cultural Inquiry (Bloomington, 2000), 181–6.

92 Langwick, Maladies in Tanzania; Hampshire, K. R. and Owusu, S. A., ‘Grandfathers, Google, and dreams: medical pluralism, globalization, and new healing encounters in Ghana’, Medical Anthropology, 32 (2012), 247–65CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

93 Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft; Flint, Healing Traditions; Langwick, Maladies in Tanzania; R. Sutherland Rattray, Religion and art in Ashanti (Oxford, 1927), 28–34.

94 For instance, the Food and Drugs Board briefly banned the advertisement of all traditional medical products, given its inability to adequately test them and maintain safety standards.

95 Michael Acquah Personal Papers, Leaflets, ‘Ghana Federation of Traditional Medicine Practitioners Associations Elections Vote 12th Jan 1999’.

96 Interview with ‘Doctor’ Padan, Padan Herbal Clinic, Accra, 24 Jan 2003.

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