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By Katherine McMillin
SBAA ROUDI, Morocco – Drissia Louati, 50, a sherifa, or traditional healer, is wrapped in a velvety robe, sitting in a tiny room in the village of Sbaa Roudi near the ancient city of Fes. Louati says she discovered her healing powers thirty years ago when, at a relative’s home in Fes, a woman who happened to be visiting the house asked Louati to close her eyes. When she opened them, Louati says she found herself in the Sbaa Roudi village, in the room that now houses her office and bedroom.
“Who gives me this power? It is a gift, all from God,” she says.
In Morocco, modern health care is available to most people, but there are only about six medical doctors for every 10,000 inhabitants, according to the World Health Organization. That compares to 25 doctors per every 10,000 inhabitants in the United States. In rural areas of Morocco only 30 percent of the population lives less than five kilometers from a health care facility. At least a quarter of the population relies exclusively on traditional medicine, according to a survey by the National Observatory of Human Development, a Moroccan government monitoring system. Traditional healers in Morocco go by many names: sherifas, clairvoyants, scorers, herbalists and midwives.
“I have a lot of patients,” says Louati. “Every patient that I treat always says thank you and comes back.”
One of Louati’s patients is Hassan Didouh, 46. She greets Didouh with whiskery smacks on both cheeks and an embrace that becomes draped in Louati’s robes. Louati begins her treatment by holding up a seemingly ordinary spoon. She says a woman in a dream told her to look on her doorstep and that’s where she found the spoon. Louati heats the handle of the spoon on a small stove. Then, she taps each of Didouh’s fingernails with the now glowing hot spoon handle. The tapping of the spoon is called kuwway, a word that stems from the verb cauterize. Didoah lets out a nervous giggle.
“There’s healing here where I can be healed without visiting a pharmacy,” says Didouh.
Louati says she can see and communicate with spirits, or djinn (pronounced jinn) and they give her the power to heal people with problems ranging from basic physical ailments to broken bones, fertility problems and even mental illness. Sherifas, or sherifs (men), are thought to get their powers because they come from the same bloodline as the prophet Mohammad, according to Josep Dieste, the author of the book Health and Ritual in Morocco, published in 2013.
“When I was young, I felt there was something inside of me, something unclear, something being haunted. But [now it’s] actually helping me,” Louati explained.
Just shy of walking distance from Louati’s home and about 15 km from the ancient city of Fes, is Ain Allah, a cluster of cafés, shops and olive trees tucked around a bathhouse fed by spring water with supposed healing powers. Royane Alforse, a doctor, stands in doorway of Ain Allah’s overflowing pharmacy. Alforse is dismissive of sherifas like Louati.
“No, people don’t trust those things anymore,” says Alforse. “Sherifas are like legends.”
The pharmacist behind the counter is of the same opinion.
“People used to trust in traditional medicine more than the modern but not anymore,” says the pharmacist, Chami Lamiae. “Because people are more conscious now and educated. People come to us more than Drissia. They don’t trust her.”
Yet Louati, sitting in her home tucked within a maze of thatched fences, littered pathways and braying donkeys, disputes that claim.
“They go see a doctor; if his treatment didn’t work they came to see me. Each person I’ve treated, came to hug me and thank me,” says Louati.
Amine, 23, who refuses to reveal his last name for fear of being stigmatized for using a traditional healer, is one of 15 patients lined up to visit a sherif in the vast Iwiziya market between the cities Rabat and Casablanca. This is Amine’s second visit to the sherif, and says he is feeling a little better.
“I tried everything else, so what do I have to lose?” asks Amine who says he has a neurological disease. “If this doesn’t work I will surrender”.
Poor people, who can’t afford modern hospitals, turn to traditional healers who are less expensive, according to Dieste who adds that even rich Moroccans sometimes consult traditional healers when they don’t get help from modern medicine. That’s a concern for Dr. Mohammad Hassar, a Professor of Internal Medicine and Clinical Pharmacology in Morocco.
“Sometimes people will lose a lot of time, putting a lot of confidence on those healers or sherifas, and the disease will progress,” says Hassar.
But back in her tiny room in Sbaa Roudi village, Louati puts two hands on her heart and insists her treatments have never failed.
“Thanks to God, my medicine and my way of healing have always worked out,” she says.
Katherine McMillin spent several months in Morocco on an SIT Study Abroad journalism program and produced this story in association with Round Earth Media, www.RoundEarthMedia.org which is reclaiming international news. Khadija Benaich contributed to reporting.