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I was born in the Sudan of Sudanese Muslim parents in Al-Dueim, on the west bank of the White Nile, central Sudan. I spent my early years in this town, and I went to school there. Since then, I have visited many towns and villages throughout the country. My mother tongue is Arabic, the main language of the country. I had a typical Sudanese childhood. I shared the daily life and activities of the people. My basic norms and values, I dare say, are those of the communities I describe in this book.
At the age of four, I joined the khalwa (Quranic School), learned rudimentary Arabic and memorized the first short chapters of the Holy Book. While I was there, I gained my first insight into the inner circle of religious healers, and at an early age I saw the maseed (colloquial for mosque) and the Sufi followers.
Many families in the Sudan have their patron saints whom they consult or invoke in times of stress and need. Al-Mikashfi Abu-Umar of Shikanieba village, central Sudan, is the patron shaikh of our clan. At the age of five, my parents took me to his shrine, half a dayís journey from my hometown. There, I saw the local asylum, for the first time, and was excited to see the mentally ill inmates under treatment. I had my first haircut there. My parents, with other worshippers, paid homage to the holy man. It was an impressive scene that remained deeply engraved in my memory.
During my childhood, I suffered every summer from attacks of epistaxis; I bled through the left nostril. Hospital treatment did not help. One morning my father decided to try his friend shaikh Awad Rahama, a laundry man in the market place, who was known as a traditional healer as well. He was particularly noted for his effective recipes for nose bleeding. The shaikh welcomed us and asked me to sit. He washed my forehead with water, and on it wrote some Quranic verses in copying pencil. He then gave me a hijab (amulet) to wear. That was the last time I ever had epistaxis!
During my early life I wore a variety of amulets. Some were to combat the evil eye, some to ensure success at school, while others were hafidhas (protectors). Some were paper hijabs, and others were mihaya (blessed water) that I had to drink, or bakhra to burn and fumigate myself with.
Several types of treatment and healing sťances are vivid in my memory. For example, I saw the bonesetter in action. There was one in every neighborhood in every village or town. Many were notably skilful and experienced. They used no painkillers while setting a broken bone or manipulating a sprained joint, because they knew none, and, hence, had to work dexterously. I remember Al-faki Al-Zubair and Al-faki Hamoda, the two notable religious healers in our neighbourhood. They also led the congregation prayers, taught the Quran, and stood as masters of ceremonies in weddings. I joined the Quranic School of the first, and had many amulets and bakhras from the second.
The therapeutic musical extravaganza of the zar is a popular feature in northern Sudan. The zar is an exclusively womenís congregation in which lavish musical ceremonies are performed. Several times, I escaped my parentsí notice, and sometimes even school, to sneak into one of the zar houses. I found the ceremonies fascinating, and still remember them vividly, and with pleasure. The rhythm of the zar music and the heavy fragrances that escape from the ceremony houses are unforgettable.
Many Muslim Sudanese towns have religious Sufi fraternities called turuq Sufiyya (Sufi orders). In these turuq, people perform zikr, remembrance chants in praise of the Prophet Muhammad and Sufi saints. The ceremonies range from the highly rhythmic type of the Qadiriyya order, to the quiet melodies of the Burhamiyya. We joined the zikr circles whenever there was a ceremony in the neighbourhood; we danced, chanted, and always waited for that dervish who would dance himself into a trance.
Every time I was on my way to a school test, my parents would take me to the nearest faki. They would ask him to prescribe mihaya for me to drink. He also would write a small hijab to wear. My parents considered these steps essential if I were to succeed. Whenever I ran a fever, my parents would fumigate me with bakhur al-taiman (the twinís incense). This was the first measure they performed to detect and banish the evildoer. This bakhur was and still is widely acclaimed as a means of exorcising the evil eye.
As I grew up, I went through all the initiation rites that a Sudanese male child or adult would go through in life. I also clearly remember female rites, and indeed, all the rituals associated with the various social occasions in the northern and central parts of the country. I have tried to relive this lifelong experience in this book. In doing so, I have presented the data in a form that I hope will be of help to professionals and perhaps also to a wider spectrum of readers. This book, however, is not only an historical narrative; it is also a description of the contemporary situation and a platform for looking into the future. I describe in this book the field of traditional medicine in the Sudan, both past and present. I also give guidelines that may help in studying it better in the future. As the title indicates, the book is written primarily with researchers in mind, but will, I hope, interest other readers.
Over the last 25 years, I have visited most of the healing centres, watched many healing sťances, and documented the results. I have observed and interviewed many people - healers and patients, whether literate or illiterate. They all had something to say. I have reviewed most of the literature and have checked and rechecked information whether read, seen, or heard, whenever it has been possible to do so.
Sudanese society has its own values and norms, customs and beliefs. Some of these have radically changed due to the recent impact of rapid urbanization, education, and changing modes of life. This work does not attempt to evaluate such values and norms, nor does it enter in any depth into peopleís beliefs and faith, and, certainly, it passes no moral judgments. I have tried to interpret data carefully, and have generalized only when I felt justified by sound premises. I naturally hope future research lends further support to my general conclusions.
Many values characterize the people of northern Sudan. These Muslim communities have been described as firm believers in God, His Prophets, and their Companions and in holy men. They have also been described as modest, courageous, helpful, hospitable and caring people who have maintained their standards of behaviour, health, and beauty. Many European travellers, explorers, naturalists and so on have visited the Sudan in the last two centuries. They have documented their impressions in memoirs, books, letters, or in official reports. From a Western standpoint, they have identified some virtues, but many vices. These values, be they as they may, do dictate social behaviour and explain some health habits. They also could explain the tenacious adherence to certain practices harmful to health.
Examples of misconeptions
Some cursory historians have called certain surgical procedures they encountered in the Sudan, brutal. Such procedures included tattooing, facial scarring and nose and lip perforation. Many communities, however, genuinely hold these selfsame practices to be beautifying. They are part of the culture, and they cannot be separated from or studied outside it.
A modest and chaste female is held in high esteem. This, most probably, inspires the lay mind to practice what all researchers have agreed as mutilating, brutal, and harmfulófemale circumcision. Similarly, some other practices, which might be seen as whimsical, may well have developed because they satisfy a certain social necessity. Examples are dilka (scented massage), dukhan (scented smoke bath) and khumra (pot pourri), which have been evaluated differently by foreigners. Through their sharp fragrance women send messages of intimacy and attraction to their male partners.
In studying traditional medicine, I have tried to appreciate the difficulties facing those interested in or concerned with this field. Local sources for the study of traditional medicine are often unavailable; those that do exist are widely scattered. I have looked for data pertinent to the health sphere in a variety of written material. I have consulted sources as diverse as Al-Arabiya fi Al-Sudan by Abd Allah Abd Al-Rahman Al-Ahaji by Abd Allah Al-Tayib, Al-Amthal Al-Sudaniyya by Babiker Badri and many other Sudanese literary works. I have reviewed as many folk-lore genres as possible: Sudanese fables, riddles, myths, epics and quizzes, as well as literary prose and poetry.
Intent of work
This work is intended to be a primer in Sudanese traditional medicine, or, better still, a compendium of health culture. I hope it becomes a handy manual for researchers in the medical, pharmaceutical, and related social sciences, and for as broad a sector of readers as the English language permits.
This book draws a sketch map for the field, places the necessary landmarks, and provides some explanations of common features. In doing so, I sincerely hope to stimulate research that would establish traditional medicine as a recognized body of knowledge, with its own claims to excellence and distinction. The more we study traditional medicine, and the more we clarify its domains, the easier it will become for policy-makers and educators to take positive attitudes. I hope that this book helps Physicians and Pharmacists to be better social workers. They would be, I am sure, if they were better informed about how wisely the Sudanese people use the resources of the environment in managing their health.
I also hope that this book increases informed awareness among groups already concerned with this subject, from museum curators, to legislators working in the medical field, and entrepreneurs looking for sound investment in medicinal plants. It might also be of value to medical historians surveying relics of the past, and may be useful to medical anthropologists and sociologists with little training in medical sciences, or medical personnel with little training in or knowledge of the social sciences.
My ultimate goal in this work is to remind Sudanese intellectuals in particular that a common health heritage is a significant aspect of the common cultural identity of the Sudanese people. This is why I have written this book in English instead of the more widely-read Arabic. Many southern Sudanese intellectuals have no working knowledge of Arabic. This group concerns me most, and I particularly desire to address them. To do so, I have risked possible corruption of some vernacular names through the process of transliteration.
I do not claim that I have covered the whole field of traditional health culture. Neither do I claim perfection. My treatment of traditional medicine in the southern and southeastern Regions of the country is sketchy. Many tribes, ethnic groups and communities in different regions of the Sudan, still await to be studied. We still know little about our sub-Saharan neighbours, among whom many Sudanese tribes live. We know even less about the ethnic groups that move freely across Sudanís extensive borders with neighbouring countries. These must be the subjects of books other than this. If the present work provides a stimulus to their composition, it will have achieved one very important aim.