Encounter with a Traditional Healer : Suzanne Maiello

Western and African therapeutic approaches in dialogue by Suzanne Maiello (Rome)
Thursday 16 August 2007

Encounter with a Traditional Healer
Western and African therapeutic approaches in dialogue

Suzanne Maiello, Rome

The author of the paper, a Western trained analyst and psychotherapist with a deep interest in anthropological issues and cultural differences in the approach to psychic distress and mental illness, had the unique opportunity, during a prolonged stay in South Africa, to meet an African healer and to learn about traditional methods of treatment.

The paper gives a detailed report of the encounter between the two women, the white European analyst and the black African sangoma. The meeting  took place in a village in the wilderness, in the healer’s natural working environment. The theme of their discussion was the healer’s treatment of a patient who had had a psychotic breakdown.
The author reflects upon this encounter at three different levels.
One train of thoughts is concerned with more general cultural issues. The author thinks about the influence of the social and cultural environment both on the development of the individual, the sense of identity, and on the forms in which pathology manifests itself.

A second level of considerations deals with the interplay between socio-cultural structures on the one hand and therapeutic practice and theory on the other. In other terms, both psychoanalytic theory and practice are seen against the background of the culture which produced them. This means that inevitably culture-specific aspects influence also the contents which are transmitted in professional training.
The third level of enquiry explores in detail some of the similarities and differences in the use and function of therapeutic tools, taking as a starting point the African healer’s narrative of her patient’s treatment. Aspects of traditional African healing practices and Western psychotherapeutic approaches are compared.  Particular attention is given to the different role of verbal language and communication in the two cultures, as well as on the culture-specific meaning and interpretation of dreams.

Finally, some thought is given to the possibilities and limits of cross-cultural psychotherapy and analysis. This aspect is becoming more and more relevant, as migratory movements across the globe are increasing, and Western professionals are more and more likely to work with patients whose cultural background is different from their own.

Suzanne Maiello, AIPA, IAAP
Via Dalmazia 16 A
I – 00198 Rome
Tel/Fax ++39 06 85 35 14 20
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Languages of presentation: (English and Italian)