Jeremiah Byaharugo, 73, practices traditional medicine in Rubona, a village on the ridge of a peninsula that points towards the centre of Lake Bunyonyi. He has been a Gorilla Highlands Trails partner for years and this relationship has allowed us special access.
Please tell us about your family and education.
I was in born in Kashekye village, Kagarama, to a father with a lot of land and animals so I didn’t think about going to school. I don’t regret that – I still learned counting and other useful things. I had an elder sister and five brothers. My sister and one brother have passed away. Three of my brothers went to other places to look for more land and one is still around.
Who taught you about traditional medicine and healing?
I learned medicine from my father like my father learned it from his father and he also from his father. It’s a long history. My father taught my brother, his oldest son. It is a tradition that the youngest or oldest son is taught, not the children in between. But my elder brother passed away, so my father started to teach me when I was 10 years old because my aunt saw the special talent in me.
My dad took me to the forest often to learn. Ten times we went there together, and he taught me everything about plants and herbs. He told me which herbs are used for which diseases. After that he made a small cut in my arm with his knife, smeared the wound with herbs and said: “Now you are ready to go by yourself to the forest”. This empowers me to collect herbs and plants by myself. Making small cuts into people’s skin is still part of my healing treatments, it heals diseases or decreases pain.
How long have you been practicing as a traditional healer?
When I was 30 years old my father passed away – that was the moment when I started healing on my own. You are allowed to start practicing when your father is too tired to work or after he passes away. Until my father’s death I was collecting herbs and learning from him how to heal patients, supervised by him.
How big is your own family? Do you teach your children how to heal?
I had two wives. One gave birth to 7 and the other one to 8 children. One of my wives has passed away, so I’m now staying with my other spouse. When I was young it was normal to have more than one wife. Since I had many acres of land I needed more than one wife to cultivate it.
My aunt asked me to teach two of my children in whom she found special talents. First I taught my oldest daughter, however, when she gets married she will belong to another clan, so I also needed to teach one of my sons to be sure that the healing stays in the family. The girl was 9 years old and the boy 12 when I started teaching them. I went to the forest with them, so they could learn how to collect the right herbs on their own, like my father had taught me. As I am still practicing they are only allowed to collect herbs and take care of simple cases. My daughter is married and now belongs to another tribe, so she can work and treat there. My son lives with me here, so my focus is on teaching him. He helps me with healing but does other manual work for a living. The reason why we don’t allow our children to start healing is that there would then be competition. In each community there should be only one healer.
Was it your passion to become a healer or have you been selected against your will?
It was my dream to become a healer like my father. He was my role model.
What kind of diseases do you treat?
I treat many diseases like malaria, diarrhea, stomach ache, allergy, pneumonia or joint ache. But most commonly I treat people who are attacked by spirits, demons or ghosts and mentally disturbed people. I look at a person and even before he or she says anything I can identify the illness.
What is your religion?
In ancient times Nyabingi was our god, before Christians missioners came. They burned down all our shrines and religious places. Step by step they converted our community to Christianity and encouraged them to go to church. They also burned down my shrine but because I still believe in Nyabingi I built another one.
Nowadays many people who go to church still follow Nyabingi and sacrifice. They visit the shrine in the morning and evening but attend the Sunday service. Since sacrifice to Nyabingi is done on Wednesday it can be combined with church on Sunday. For them the central aspect of Christianity is meeting up with friends. But believing in Nyabingi is dying out because younger people grow up with Christianity.
What does the church think of you?
The church doesn’t like me, they know about my shrine but according to the law they are not allowed to burn it.
Can witchcraft, spirits, ghosts and demons affect you?
Spirits often affect family members. For example, when the head of the family passes away and his children do something he doesn’t like, he sends spirits to stop their misbehaviour. Witchcraft is often a result of jealousy or revenge. For example, if a boy was responsible for a girl being sent to Punishment Island (gotten her pregnant before marriage) his family would be bewitched. So spirits are a matter from within a family while witchcraft comes from outside.
I can see demons in my patient’s body, that is my natural power, and it is my job to send them away. I can touch a patient’s chest and feel them. I mix medicine and after speaking my words they disappear because they are scared of me. I’m strong, so they can’t affect me. Also my family is well protected.
Who are your patients?
My patients are not only from this community but also from Kabale Town or across the lake. Usually people come by car and park in front my house. Some of them are sent from the hospital. In the past medical personnel would have never recommended a traditional healer and I would not send people to them, but now we are working together.
That’s interesting. Who has caused this change?
The conflict between traditional healers and hospitals came from religion. But people have become educated and understand that they have been mistaken. Nowadays you can be Christian and still go to a healer.
How often do you have patients coming to your place? Can anyone drop by whenever you are needed?
In a typical week about three people come by to ask for help, but I can also have 20 patients per week. I’m open 24 hours a day, including Sundays. So people can come by whenever they need help. I’m never tired.
What do you do if you can’t treat someone?
If I can’t heal a patient, I need to check around and ask myself about the origin of the disease. If I can’t find out the reason I need to send them to the hospital. So far I have only failed to cure three people. Two of them got diagnosed with HIV and the third one needed a surgery in his stomach. I can treat syphilis, for example, but not HIV or cancer. But cancer is very uncommon here.
Do you sometimes use modern medicine?
No, I just use plants, herbs and roots.
Where do you get your plants from?
I have some plants growing nearby but certain trees and shrubs have disappeared and need to be collected from far away. When my son is around, I send him.
Do you teach people from outside your family, from the community?
No, I would never teach someone from the community. I could teach someone from far away, for example Kampala, but I’m not sure if that would be successful or if the person could learn it. And he or she would not be allowed to compete with me here.
In the beginning it was even hard for me to allow tourists to visit me and ask questions. It’s a cultural reason: you don’t give your knowledge to outsiders. Any time I meet tourists I am thinking: “Are they missionaries?” But then I get to know them and find out that they are okay. Sometimes they ask if they can see my shrine but I need to deny them that.
Are there other healers around this area? Is there competition?
In each community there is only one healer and there are also communities without any healers. Not all the healers perform the same, depending on their talent and knowledge about diseases and medicine. The next healer lives five kilometres away from my place. Community members always go to their healer or the closest one. That’s the unwritten rule. If I meet other healers, I share my knowledge with them and see how they perform. We are open and friendly to each other.
How much do you charge for each treatment?
It depends on the case and on the disease. In the past people brought goods as exchange, for example a cow, goat or sheep. These days I start treating for USh 30,000 (US$ 9) if the case is small, USh 100,000 for bigger problems. The money I ask for is always for the whole treatment, so even if you have to come for more days the price is the same. My treatments are more expensive than the ones at the hospital.
interview: Katharina Lahner and Owen Bright