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In their oral literature, the Sudanese described their health norms and explained ill-health. They offered various forms of treatment. However, they did not write down explicitly what causes disease, disability and harm. Neither did they write their recipes. These we had to reconstruct by analyzing available data, and to do this we had to conduct intensive field surveys and dig into several sources. These include archeological relics, oral tradition, information scattered in historical chronicles, travellers’ accounts, and literary sources. All contributed remarkably to our knowledge of many tribes, and documented and preserved valuable data. The appended Bibliography in page 529 illustrates this variety.


Earlier records of Sudanese life existed in Sudanese chronicles and medieval historical records, where scattered observations on health problems, prevalent diseases and their management were reported anecdotally.




In addition to these scattered records, early travellers and historians have played an important part in studying or describing the state of health, hygiene, sanitation and medical practices in the early times (see Foreign Impressions page 439). Also during the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, government officials contributed remarkably. Naom Shuqair, for example, compiled a massive treatise on the history and geography of the 19th century Sudan with sizable sections on prevalent health customs and diseases and their treatment in different parts of the Sudan.[1]


Research initiatives


Without belittling the efforts of certain institutions in preserving the Sudanese healing practices, especially the Institute of African and Asian Studies of the University of Khartoum, the Aromatic and Medicinal Plants Research Unit and Traditional Medicine Research Institute of the National Council for Research, whose efforts to study the field in an organized fashion will be dealt with more critically later (see the Profession of Traditional Medicine, page 344), an appreciative amount of data related to health among different tribes has been collected by individual researchers.


Anthropologists, for example, have contributed immensely to this field by studying the systems of healing in several Sudanese societies. Edwards Evans-Pritchard studied the Azande,[2] the Nuer, the Ingassana,[3]the Bongo, the Mberidi and Mbegumba of Bahr Al-Ghazal; R.G. Lienhardt,[4]the Dinka; Jean Buxton,[5]the Mandari; Charles and Brenda Seligman the pagan tribes of the White Nile and southern Sudan and Harold MacMichael[6] drew a history of Arabs in the Sudan. In J.S. Trimingham’s studies on Islam in the Sudan,[7]we find a perceptive analysis of the magico-religious beliefs and practices associated with affliction and misfortune. Ian Cunnison studied the Humur tribes of southern Kordofan[8] and Harold Barclay Burri Al-Lamab, a suburban village in central Sudan.[9]


Several case studies in healing practices were carried out in partial fulfillment of postgraduate degrees in anthropology, folklore, medicine, pharmacy, and veterinary sciences, agriculture or for other academic pursuits. For a more comprehensive coverage of these dissertations, please refer to the appended Bibliography. However, a representative sample include Holy[10] and Abdullahi Osman Al-Tom, studying the Berti of Darfur,[11],[12] Nadel, the Nuba of southern Kordofan,[13]Sharaf Al-Din Abd Al-Salam the saints’ cult in the Sudan,[14]Abdullahi Ali Ibrahim,[15]the impact of Rubatab metaphor on social, political and health life of that tribe and their neighbours, and Sayyid Hamid Hurreiz, birth, marriage, death and initiation customs and beliefs[16] and rites of passage[17] in central Sudan. Idris Salim Al-Hasan studied Um Dawan Ban Religious institutions,[18]Awad Al-Basha, couching techniques in Kordofan,[19]Amira Hasan female circumcision,[20] Amir Ali Hasan the maseed system in the Gezira,[21],[22]Pamela Constantinidis[23] and Samia Al-Nagar,[24]women institutions specially the zar cult, and Makris, and Ahmad Al-Safi,[25]the tumbura cult in Omdurman.


Several other works appeared outside the postgraduate field, namely Ahmad Al-Safi Native Medicine in the Sudan: Sources, Concepts and Methods,[26]which was prepared for the Salamabi prize competition launched by the Sudan Research Unit in 1968, and Hamid Rushwan Female Circumcision: prevalence, complications, attitudes and change[27] and Asma Al-Darir Woman, why do you weep?[28]Both of which were reports on a WHO-sponsored survey that spanned almost all northern Sudan.


Recent initiatives


The Sudan shared in the recent worldwide resurgence of interest in studies of culture, in search of identity, self-sufficiency and for fulfilling national pride. In this endeavour Tigani Al-Mahi unequivocally pioneered this search with much enthusiasm, devotion and talent.


Tigani was a Sudanese psychiatrist and social scientist of great distinction; he lived with an unequaled love of the culture he was born and brought up in. Over and above his interest, his psychiatric career brought him into contact with invaluable sources and key informants in research fields. Tigani Al-Mahi contributed significantly to the inception and promotion of an African model of psychiatric health delivery that came to be known as the “village-system” as typified by that of the village of Aro in Abeokota in western Nigeria. The system permitted treatment of the mentally-ill by utilization of the inherent dynamic resources of the social environment as the principal therapeutic technique.


Earlier, T. Adeoyo Lambo (a Nigerian pioneer psychiatrist) and Tigani Al-Mahi postulated that under stress—emotional or otherwise—newly-acquired and highly-differentiated social attitudes and ideologies are more susceptible to ‘damage,’ leaving the basic traditional beliefs and indigenous moral philosophy functionally overactive.[29] This insight led them to recognize the part played by indigenous psychotherapeutic approaches in the total management of patients, without any lowering of standards of medical practice. They also found, through long practice in Africa, that a multi-disciplinary approach and collaboration with traditional healers is necessary for better scientific understanding of man and his environment.


Also Tigani’s insights in problems of fieldwork and methodology in the social sciences are shrewd and should be carefully studied by all field workers in the social sciences, especially the uninitiated. Much is to be found in his book An Introduction to the History of Arabic Medicine[30] published in Arabic, and in his papers in the two volumes of collected essays edited by Ahmad Al-Safi and Taha Baasher and published by Khartoum University Press in 1981[31] and 1984.[32]


Early initiatives


Broun and Massey[33] and Andrews[34] early in this century compiled two books on Sudanese flora that have become indispensable sources for researchers, and particularly useful for those studying traditional medicine, even though they have not dealt specifically with medicinal plants. During the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium (1899-1956) medical doctors in the Egyptian Medical Corps, scientists, and administrators contributed a lot to our knowledge of the local practices in the various parts of the country. The articles they wrote were pioneering in every sense. Some of these articles were published in the Wellcome Research Laboratories reports (1906-1911),[35]edited by Sir Andrew Balfour;[36]others appeared in Sudan Notes and Records (1918-).


Bimbashi RG Anderson, while Senior Medical Officer in Kordofan, described the medical practices and superstitions amongst the people of that region.[37]Later, he also described the tribal customs of the Nyam-Nyam[38] and Gour people inhabiting the eastern Bahr Al-Ghazal region, and the relation of these customs to the medicine and morale of these tribes.[39]Bimbashi L. Bousfield, an Egyptian Medical Corps and Senior Medical Officer in Kasala in the eastern Sudan, has described the local methods of treatment of diseases in that region.[40]Bimbashi Hasan Effendi Zeki, of the Sudan Medical Department and Medical Officer at Gordon Memorial College, has described the healing art of the dervishes during the rule of the Mahdi and his Khalifa (successor).[41]Zeki had been taken captive to Omdurman by the Mahdi after he had captured the city, and had worked during his captivity as the Mahdi’s medical adviser and attended him during his death. Sir Rudolph Baron von Slatin Pasha, Inspector General, Sudan Government, has contributed brief but interesting notes on the health of the Sudanese. He has furnished the Wellcome Laboratories Reports with notes on the local methods of the dervish healing practices and customs.[42]


Abd Al-Hamid Ibrahim reviewed the medicinal plants and minerals that appeared in the publications of the Wellcome Research Laboratory Reports for the years 1906, 1908, and 1911, and compiled an inventory of the cited plants and minerals with their catalogue numbers in the Wellcome Museum of Medicine in Khartoum.[43]The inventories have been appended to the Annual Reports of the Government Analyst, Wellcome Chemical Laboratories Reports for the years 1958-59 and 1959-60. These appendices would have been of much help to researchers if the museum[44] and its contents had not been lost.[45]


Some researchers in the last few years have made some efforts to document herbal medicines in the Sudan. Gamal Al-Ghazali has produced a small booklet entitled Medicinal Plants of the Sudan.[46] The book covers twenty medicinal plants that are popular in Erkowit. The author has described and illustrated the plants in line drawings. Each plant entry includes the vernacular and taxonomic names, habitat, distribution, chemical constituents and a brief mention of uses. The booklet has the relevant references.


The Khartoum Trading and Projects, a private company in Khartoum, has published a similar booklet[47] describing 41 plants. Each entry in this booklet includes the vernacular and the taxonomic names, habitat, distribution in the Sudan, chemical constituents, and uses. It is neither illustrated nor referenced.


The Arab Organization for Agricultural Development published in 1988 Al-Nabatat Al-Tibbiyya WAl-‘Itriyya WAl-Samma Fi Al-Watan Al-Arabi. The book contains profiles for 256 entries. Many plants have been illustrated in line drawings, and some were reproduced in coloured photographs. Each entry contains the common Arabic names and the English and Latin equivalents. The book also describes each plant, its habitat, active principles, and uses.[48]Many plants listed in this book were drawn from the Sudan.


Several poisonous plants occur naturally in the Sudan. Early researchers, including Sir Andrew Balfour, described some of these plants in the early reports of the Wellcome Research Laboratories in the first decade of this century.[49] Robert Kirk[50] in 1946 and Mansour Ali Haseeb[51] in 1972 updated the knowledge in this field. Some minor accounts have appeared in Arabic describing the chemistry and pharmacology of some of these plants.[52]Professor Salah Adam of the College of Veterinary Sciences researched extensively (and helped researchers) in toxic and poisonous plants that affect animal and man.[53]



[1] Naom Shuqair. Gughrafiyat wa Tariekh Al-Sudan (1903) [Arabic]. Beirut: Dar Al-Thaqafa; Many editions, 1972.

[2] Evans-Pritchard, Edward E. Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon Press; 1937. 558 pages, with plates. With a foreword by C.G. Seligman.

[3] Evans-Pritchard, Edward E (1927): Op. Cit.

[4] Lienhardt, Godfrey. The Dinka of the Nilotic Sudan [D. Phil.] London: Oxford; 1951.

[5] Buxton, Jean C. Religion and Healing in Mandari. Oxford: The Clarendon Press; 1973. 444 pages.

[6] MacMichael, Harold A. A History of Arabs in the Sudan: and some account of the people who preceded them and of the tribes inhabiting Darfur. 1967 2nd ed. London: Frank Cass; 1922; 2 vols. vol. 1: 347 pages, vol. 2: 488 pages.

[7] Trimingham, J. Spence. Islam in the Sudan. London: Oxford University Press; 1949. 280 pages.

[8] Cunnisson, Ian.

[9] Barclay, H. B. Burri Al-Lamaab: a suburban village in the Sudan. Ithaca New York: Cornell University Press; 1964.

[10] Holy, L. Neighbours and Kinsmen: A Study of the Berti People of Northern Sudan. London: C. Hurst; 1974.

[11] Abdullahi Osman El-Tom. Conceptualization, etiology and treatment of illness among the Berti people of Northern Darfur, Sudan [M.A. Thesis]. Unpublished: Queen's University of Belfast; 1979. 103.

[12] Abdullahi Osman El-Tom. Religious Men and Literacy in Berti Society [Ph.D. Thesis]. Unpublished: University of St. Andrews; 1983 Oct. 320.

[13] Nadel, S.F. The Nuba: An anthropological study of the Hill Tribes of Kordofan. London: Oxford University Press; 1947.

[14] Sharaf Al-din A. Abd Al-salaam. A Study of Contemporary Sudanese Muslim Saints' Legends [Ph.D. Thesis]: Indiana University; 1983.

[15] Abdullahi Ali Ibrahim. Assaulting with Words. The Socio- poetics of the Rubatab Evil Eye Metaphors [Ph.D. Thesis]: Folklore Institute, Indiana University; 1987 May 20. 315.

[16] Sayyid Hamid Hurreiz. Birth, Marriage, Death and Initiation Customs and Beliefs in the Central Sudan [Ph. D. Thesis]: Leeds University; 1966.

[17] Sayyid Hamid Hurreiz. Rites of passage in Central Sudan. Leeds; 1965.

[18] Idris Salim Al-Hasan. On Ideology: The Case of Religion in Northern Sudan [Ph.D. Thesis]: University of Connecticut; 1980. 254 pages.

[19] Awad Al-Basha. Couching for Cataract in Western Sudan [M.S. Thesis]. Khartoum: University of Khartoum; 1980.

[20] Amira Hasan. Social Attributions for Female Circumcision. United Kingdom: University of Surrey; April 1986.

[21] Amir Ali Hasan. A descriptive study of the Maseed comprehensive approach in health and other services. Institute of African & Asian Studies: University of Khartoum; 1983.

[22] Amir Ali Hasan. Health care in Gezira, patterns and determinants with special reference to mental health. London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; 1988.

[23] Constantinidis, Pamela M. Sickness and the Spirits: a study of the Zaar spirit possession cult in the Northern Sudan [Ph.D. Thesis]. Unpublished: London University; 1972. 349 pages.

[24] Samia Al-Hadi Al-Nagar. Spirit Possession and Social Change in Omdurman [M.Sc. Thesis]. Unpublished: University of Khartoum; 1973.

[25] Makris, Gerasimos P.; Ahmad Al-Safi. The tumbura spirit possession cult of the Sudan, past and present. I.M. Lewis; Ahmad Al-Safi; Sayyid Hamid Hurreiz, editors. Women’s Medicine: The Zar-Bori Cult in Africa and Beyond. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press; 1991: 118-136.

[26] Ahmad Al-Safi. Native Medicine in the Sudan, Sudan Research Unit, Faculty of Arts, University of Khartoum, 1970: 74 pp. (Photostat)

[27] Hamid Rushwan; Slot, Carry; Asma Al-Dareer; Nadia Bushra. Female Circumcision, Prevalence, Complications, Attitudes and Changes. Faculty of Medicine, University of Khartoum; 1983.

[28] Asma Al-Dareer. Woman, Why Do You Weep? Circumcision and its Consequences. London: Zed Press; 1982. 130 pages.

[29] Lambo, T. Adeoye. Patterns of Psychiatric Care in Developing African Countries. In: Kiev, Ari, Editor. Magic, Faith, and Healing. New York: The Free Press; 1964. 443-453.

[30] Tigani Al-Mahi. An Introduction to the History of Arabian Medicine. (in Arabic) Khartoum: Misr Printing Press, 1959: 185 pp.

[31] Ahmad Al-Safi; Taha Baasher, Editors. Tigani Al-Mahi: Selected Essays. Ist ed. Khartoum: Khartoum University Press; 1981; University of Khartoum, Silver Jubilee-1956-1981. 187 pages.

[32] Ahmad Al-Safi; Taha Baasher, Editors. Tigani Al-Mahi: Selected Essays. [Arabic] Ist ed. Khartoum: Khartoum University Press; 1984; University of Khartoum, pages.

[33] Broun, A. F.; Massey, R. E. Flora of the Sudan. London: Thomas Murley & Co.; 1929.

[34] Andrews, F.W. The Flowering Plants of the AE Sudan [Cycladaceae-Tiliaceae]: T. Bundle (Arbroath, Angus) for the Sudan Government; 1950; 1. 250 pages.

--The Flowering Plants of the AE Sudan [Sterculiaceae-Dipsaceae]: T. Bundle (Arbroath, Angus) for the Sudan Government; 1952; 2. 485 pages.

--The Flowering Plants of the AE Sudan [Compositae-Gramineae]: T. Bundle (Arbroath, Angus) for the Sudan Government; 1952; 3. 584 pages.

--Vernacular Names of Plants as Described in The Flowering Plants of the AE Sudan: T. Bundle (Arbroath, Angus) for the Sudan Government; 1948; 1.

--Compiler. Vernacular Names of Plants [As described in]. Andrews, F.W. Flowering Plants of the AE Sudan. Sudan: McCorquodale & Co.; 1953.

--Compiler. Vernacular names of Plants [As described in]. Flowering Plants of the Sudan; 1957; 3.

[35] Balfour, Sir Andrew. Editor. Wellcome Research Laboratories Reports; 1906, 1908, 1911, 1913.

[36] Sir Andrew Balfour, MD, BSc, FRCP, Edin., DPH Camb., (1873-1931), a British medical doctor and researcher. He was the first director of the Wellcome Tropical Research Laboratories, Khartoum, in 1902. He was also the first Medical Officer of Health of Khartoum after Kitchener's reconquest of the Sudan.

[37] Anderson, R.G. Medical Practices and Superstitions Among the People of Kordofan. Wellcome Research Laboratories Reports; 1908, 281-322.

[38] “The Bahr El Ghazal Handbook says that the name is probably of onomatopoeic origin and was originally applied to the unknown conglomeration of people whose cannibal propensities were a matter of common report. It now seems to have become the general name in the Sudan for the Azande, though it is not used by the Officials in the South of the Province, who have to differentiate between many different tribes all of whom are described further north as Nyam-Nyam. This name, being as I have said completely meaningless, might be discarded.” Major R. G. C. Brock. Some Notes on the Azande Tribe as Found in the Meridi District (Bahr El Ghazal Province). Sudan Notes and Records. 1918; 1: 249-262.

[39] Anderson, R.G. Some Tribal Customs and Their Relation to Medicine and Morals of the Nyam-Nyam and Gour People Inhabiting the eastern Bahr El Ghazal. Wellcome Research Laboratories Reports.  London: Bailliere, Tindall and Cox; 1911; 4A pp. 239-277.

[40] Bousfield, L. The Native Methods of Treatment of Diseases in Kassala and Neighbourhood. Wellcome Research Laboratories Report; 1908; 3: 273-279.

[41] Hasan Zeki. The Healing Art as Practiced by the Dervishes in the Sudan during the Rule of the Mahdi and the Khalifa. Wellcome Tropical Research Laboratory Report; 1908; 3: 269-272.

[42] Rudolph Baron von Slatin Pasha, Sir, Inspector General, Sudan Government. Additional Notes [on native medicine of the dervishes]. Wellcome Research Laboratories Report; 1908; 3: -977-79.

[43] The Museum of Health in the College of Health, Khartoum, also disappeared. It was once a popular educational institution for the public and for students of science. The premises have been occupied by the Health Education Directorate of the Ministry of Health. We spent a few years looking for the lost items with no luck!

[44] Ahmad Al-Safi. Museum of the History of Medicine and Health Culture in Sudan. Proposal memorandum presented by Traditional Medicine Research Institute, National Council for Research, Khartoum to UNESCO 1985.

[45] Abd Al-Hamid Ibrahim. Folk Medicine and Materia Medica, Catalogue of Vegetable Samples with Notes on Uses [Appendix 21. In: Annual Report of the Government Analyst. Wellcome Chemical Laboratories Reports; 1958-59: 27-39, and: Abd Al-Hamid Ibrahim. Folk Medicine and Materia Medica, Catalogue of Mineral Samples with Notes on Uses [Appendix 2]. In: Annual Report of the Government Analyst. Wellcome Chemical Laboratories Reports; 1959-60: 24-29.

[46] Gamal E.B. Al-Ghazali. Medicinal Plants of the Sudan: Part One, Medicinal Plants of Erkowit. Medicinal and Aromatic Plants Institute, National Council for Research, Khartoum University Press, Khartoum; 1986: 55 pages.

[47] Khartoum Trading and Projects. Medicinal and Aromatic Plants of the Sudan. Medicinal and Aromatic Plants Unit, Dina Printing Press, Khartoum. July 1982

[48] Abd Al-Aziz Muhammad Khalaf Allah, Editor, Compiler. Al-Nabatat Al-Tibbiyya Wal-'Itriyya Wal-Samma Fil-Watan Al-Arabi. Arab Organization for Agricultural Development, Sponsor. lst ed. Cairo: Dar Misr Lil-Tiba'a; 1988. 477 pages.

[49] Balfour, Sir Andrew. Op. Cit.

[50] Kirk R. Some Vegetable Poisons of the Sudan. Sudan Notes and Records. 1946: 27: 127-157.

[51] Mansour Ali Haseeb. Some Poisonous Plants in the Sudan. Sudan Medical Journal, 1972: 10: 94-101.

[52] Abbas Al-Hamidi: Al-Nabatat Al-Sammah fil Sudan. Bulletin of Sudanese Studies, 1970: 2 (1): 128-131.

[53] See the appended Bibliography for his contributions.

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