This article was produced with a reporting grant provided by the China-Africa Reporting Project by Cameroonian journalist Arison Tamfu, and was first published on Cameroon Daily Journal on May 2.
The Cameroonian government is deepening its cooperation with China in the area of public health. Official statistics indicate that since the first Chinese medical team arrived in Cameroon in 1975, more than 400 Chinese doctors have served in the country. But now, a new breed of Chinese doctors specializing in traditional medicine is gaining ground in Cameroon. It is estimated that at least one hundred Cameroonian patients are consulted everyday by Chinese traditional healers.
Ambe Richard lies in bed unperturbed and then stretches his arms every now and then to relax his muscles. A visibly delighted man, he waits patiently for the Chinese traditional doctor to administer acupuncture treatment to him. Acupuncture is a Chinese medical practice or procedure that treats illness or provides local anesthesia by the insertion of needles at specified sites of the body.
“I have been coming here four times a week for two months now” says Ambe
“I almost died until I came here. My recovery has been quick,” he adds.
Now 65 and a father of seven children and three grand children, Ambe suffered a stroke that paralysed him on the right side of his body in early January.
“I visited more than three hospitals in Yaounde. All attempts by the doctors to treat the illness failed” he says. It was then that he was introduced to Dr. Jia Rong, a sixth-generation Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioner, operating in the capital Yaounde. He consulted with Dr. Rong about the ailment and since then things are no longer the same.
“I can now stand up and walk a few meters and sometimes kilometers after two months here. The treatment is quite effective” he says as Dr. Rong arrives to administer acupuncture.
“She is always on time and takes her work seriously,” Ambe says, referring to Dr. Rong.
In 1999, Dr. Rong was reading about Cameroon while a student in China. She was shocked by what she discovered; a country where thousands were suffering from sicknesses.
“I decided to pack my bags and come to settle here to help cure the sick. I have been living in Cameroon for 17years now. I was one of the very first Chinese traditional healers to arrive in Cameroon. This is my home” she says with a broad smile.
In the North West regional headquarters Bamenda, Dr. Wu Xing, another Chinese Traditional doctor shares a similar story. Wu arrived in Cameroon almost at the same time as Rong and decided to settle in the highlands of Bamenda, a place he proudly calls home now.
“I am enjoying my time here. Everyday many people come for treatment to my clinic. I have cured many sicknesses and people love our medicine very much” Wu says.
“We left because China is almost saturated with traditional healers and here in Africa there are very few Chinese traditional healers and people are in dire need of our services,” he added.
Rong and Wu now represent a new breed of Chinese traditional doctors in Cameroon.
Since the year 2000, Cameroon has witnessed a dramatic boom in TCM as many locals shun Western drugs and local traditional herbs.
Chinese healers, clinics, shops, and even mobile drug vendors have inundated almost every town in Cameroon especially big cities such as Yaounde, Douala and Bamenda.
Over the last 16 years, Cameroonians have come to depend on the Chinese for TCM.
“Many Cameroonians come here for treatment of diseases such as rheumatism, hypertension, and typhoid fever” Wu explains.
“We treat all the diseases effectively. Let me add that any person with a chronic stomach ache can come to us for treatment”
In addition to treating patients with standard health problems, Rong sometimes applies unconventional treatment on her patients who believe she is capable of curing mystical problems, including witchcraft. At her clinic in Yaounde, she has reserved a section where she often prays to Buddha on behalf of her patients.
“You have some cases where people will give their family members away (to cults) for ritual money, so I have helped people who were sold (to cults) and were almost dying,” she recently told reporters at her clinic.
Rong reveals that some of her customers, including ambassadors and government ministers come to be treated for mystical problems but the majority of the clients come for aromatic and traditional massages.
Local versus TCM
“Their drugs (TCM) are effective and cheap. You can see the doctor any time you want if he is not busy treating another patient” says 58-year-old Irene Oum who was treated for rheumatism by a Chinese traditional doctor in Douala.
“I prefer them to some of the quacks that we have here in Cameroon” she adds.
But Cameroon’s traditional healer fondly referred to as King Simon Leshey, a man reputed for his healing of mystical and health problems in Douala disagrees. Simon Leshy thinks that the Chinese traditional healers are not better than them.
“They are treating people using their own methods but we still remain superior because we received our healing powers a long long time ago from our forefathers. People still come here for treatment even after receiving treatment from the Chinese” he says
“I guarantee their stay here will not be long” he declares.
Cameroon’s Medical Council has repeatedly condemned Chinese traditional healers due to their unorthodox and sometimes ineffective methods of treatment and called on public health authorities to rectify the problem but the complaints have so far been falling on deaf ears.
Business is not so smooth for the Chinese traditional healers in Cameroon. The rising popularity of TCM in the country has enticed bogus medicine men. Dr. Rong confirms that there have been instances where some Cameroonians impersonate Chinese traditional doctors.
“They use fake Chinese medicine just to make money and when people are not cured, Cameroonians who think they are working for us get really upset” says Rong.
For many of the new crop of TCM doctors, however, business is thriving.
“We are professionals and people like that,” says Dr Wu. “More and more people are becoming aware of our medicine everyday and want more. We are here to treat patients, that is all”
There might be disagreements over how effective TCM is but it seems Chinese traditional healers have come to Cameroon to stay.