CAHSS Faculty Articles

All I Need is Help to Do Well': Herbs, Medicines, Faith, and Syncretism in the Negotiation of Elder Health Treatment in Rural Ghana

Eileen Smith-Cavros, Nova Southeastern University
Joyce Avorti-Wuaku, Nova Southeastern University
Albert Wuaku
Amal Bhullar


This qualitative research sought answers to questions about how elders in Agate, Ghana, coped with the challenges of illness in a rural village and in particular how they negotiated treatment for their illnesses within a flawed and limited healthcare system. In our study, 22 of 28 interviewees used all methods available to them (biomedical approaches [doctors and/or hospitals and/or doctor-prescribed medications], herbs, over-the-counter medicines [i.e., acetaminophen painkillers], and faith-based methods [praying/fasting/laying of hands/holy food and/or water]) in attempts to heal their illnesses. A syncretism existed in the negotiation of treatment options. All participants in our study used some form of what we term “Treatment Blending” (TBL), the use by a single participant of more than one of the aforementioned treatment methods for illness. Our research also revealed a widespread use of multiple spiritual systems (at the same time) and practitioner overlap (visiting a doctor, a traditional healer, and/or Christian pastor). Elders, in multiple cases, demonstrated the daily practice of one religion while seeking healing through another framework. TBL among our participants was a reflection of the lives elders lead in which illness and healing cannot be separated from the spiritual, the idea of an omnipresent God who is the ultimate “doctor,” and ancient African traditions of herbs and rituals that possess deeper meaning for both physical and psychological healing and well-being. This ran parallel with the syncretism of religion itself in Ghana and suggests possible related paths through which to improve the healthcare system for elders in rural Ghana utilizing local faith-based groups and the elders themselves to assist.