Bedouins suffer in clash of medicines

December 8, 1995

The health of the Bedouin may be suffering because of a clash of western and traditional therapies, a London conference was told.

Problems arise from conflicting medical philosophies, the failure of each culture to understand the other, and the adoption by some Bedouin of certain western practices in the mistaken belief that they are healthier.

Aref Abu-Rabia, an anthropologist and a Bedouin, has been studying Bedouin health and nutrition, in particular that of the Bedouin of the Negev desert in southern Israel.

He said that traditional healers build up trust with their patients by accepting their diagnoses of their illnesses.

"Maybe you have travelled far," he said at the conference on traditional Asian medicine in the modern world. "You come to the healer and say: 'my liver has shifted'. The healer will say: 'you are right.' In the same minute the healer makes a channel of communication, of trust and faith.

"If you go to the western medic he will think you are crazy. He may send you to a psychologist. Maybe this implies that you are a liar."

Dr Abu Rabia, who works at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba in Israel, has spent five years studying liver treatment in the Negev communities.

"Shifted liver" is diagnosed by Bedouin healers when the liver is found to have moved downwards. Causes include a blow to the ribs, lifting a heavy object or falling off a camel. Symptoms include an aching shoulder and severe pains in the legs and knees.

Special healers treat the condition by massage and other remedies, including standing the patient upside down for a few minutes each day; and tying a comb with a scarf over the liver for a week - the comb is a support keeping the liver in place. There are also medicines, including the tongue of a hyena and camel's milk and urine.

Dr Rabia said that, according to Bedouin medicine, the cause of other illnesses is often external. Treatments therefore aim to expunge the foreign agent, for example through vomiting or diarrhoea.

He said the western doctor, meanwhile, will explain a treatment by saying "we will kill the bacteria inside you". But since the bacteria will still be inside the body this does not satisfy the Bedouin.

Dr Abu Rabia said that it is common for the Bedouin to swing back and forth between doctors and healers. "Bedouin medicine is not an alternative to western or vice versa," he told the conference, organised by the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine.

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