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Insights into Benin traditional methods of disease prevention.

The purpose of this paper was to examine the Benin traditional and cultural methods of disease prevention. The article considered the role of taboos, traditional medicine and disease prevention strategies by the people of Benin and specifically identified personal health promotion, environmental sanitation, oral hygiene, wrestling combats and appeasement as some of the methods used to prevent the incidence of disease.


Health can be defined in different ways based on individual perception or understanding of the concept of health. In other words, health is a relative concept that has no clear definition. However, there is the informed consensus among the Benin that health means "the possession of a purified or clean mind in an active body capable of promoting peaceful living and in complete harmony with oneself, neighbors and the community in which we live", whereas, sickness or ill-health means "a violation of certain taboos or offending some invisible force, i.e. gods or deities, capable of upsetting peace of the mind and the body", (Amadasun, 1987).

Similarly, it is also believed by the people of Benin that wicked neighbors, witchcraft and violation of taboos are responsible for disease causation. These beliefs by the people are not different from beliefs that exist in the Lafia community in Nigeria, where there tends to be an attachment of diseases to supernatural forces, (Okon, 1992). Indeed, the people of Benin believe in the so called " evil eye" and ascribe causes of disease to bewitchments from parents, friends and relations. Thus it is appropriate to say that health educators in Nigeria and in other countries are making efforts to educate the people on the scientific causes of diseases, but a lot is still desired of them.

Geographically, the people of Benin are found in Edo State, Nigeria and presently occupy the south-south geo-political zone of the country; many others reside in the sub-urban and rural areas of Edo State (Benin City is the capita). The climatic condition is humid and eighty five percent (85%) of the population are small farmers, and other members of the community include craftsmen (2%), traders (10%), musicians (2%) and civil servants (1%). The predominant religion is animism; however there are Christians and Moslems, but few in number whereas all theoretically owe allegiance to the Oba, the traditional ruler of the Kingdom of Benin. And in this construct, people are very religious and therefore subscribe to worship with faith in many gods and goddesses which prompt people to think every disease is the product of the handwork of wicked neighbors. Thus the gods and goddesses such as: "Osonobua" or "Osa" the supreme god, "Olokun" the god of the sea and giver of good luck, riches and children; "Ogiuwu" god of death, "Esu" the devil or the biblical Satan "Ennmiowa" spirit of the departed, "Aro-erha" the ancestral shrine, "Osun" god of water and " Orunmila" god of wisdom add complexity the question of religion and public health.

Considering the above, the primary objective of this paper is to provide information regarding traditional health practices among the people of Benin in the rural areas and how these practices have influenced their health status. And second, we recognize that many traditional beliefs and practices common among the people are beneficial to their health and thus need to be highlighted to advance greater health and wellbeing in Nigeria and other parts of the world.

Health Challenges

Not surprisingly, the people of Benin face major health challenges which include: malaria, typhoid fever, measles, cholera, sexually transmitted diseases, drug abuse and other communicable diseases, notwithstanding an increase in infant morbidity and mortality (Udoh, 1993). Hence, in many parts of Benin (particularly in the rural areas) death rates have increased, (Edigin, 2004), and many children (especially those of school age) die of communicable diseases such as tuberculosis, measles and chickenpox, coupled with cases of genital infections arising from traditional practices such as female genital mutilations and fissure vaginal fistula, diabetics, and hypertension.

In order to combat these diseases and infections, the people of Benin depend on herbs and roots which are medicinal in nature like "alonbhokhor" (popularly called scent leaves) "ohugben", asthma weed, and the bark of trees (red wood, iroko tree and almond) often applied in treatment of infections.

Public Health Practices

The people of Benin have high value for cleanliness and this could be seen in the way houses are built. For example, the pit toilets are built far away from the house and are separated. In terms of waste and excreta disposal, children are forbidden from defecating around the compound, but they must use the pit toilets. And in the event that a child was heavily pressed and passes excreta in the compound, the mother would quickly remove it. Second, waste generated in the house is burnt in the evenings when many people have returned from the farm and market. Third, although assess to clean and safe drinking water is difficult, water is brought from the stream or river and filtered through traditional methods that involve putting certain local chemicals into the water to hinder water borne diseases and thus increase immunity to disease (Owie 2005).

Taboos and Disease Prevention

Taboos are considered very significant in health oriented issues among the people of Benin. Hence, Ling (1972) posited that the people of Benin believe in two beings, one a good to whom prayer is absent because there is nothing but good to expect and the other of evil who must be avoided and thus juxtapose health and health care service. Consequently, Lambo (1980) emphasized the roles performed by traditional doctors and argue that traditional doctors have a unique style of preserving the life of the sick and likewise Oikeh (1982) maintains that cultural norms, values, and taboos contribute significantly to issues of health in Benin culture and thus observed that it is not unusual for the sick to bring charms and amulets (wore round their necks, waists and legs) to the hospitals decrease illness and promote recovery. Furthermore, Oiken (1982) postulate that taboos should not be frowned upon by nurses and doctors and suggested that people should be encouraged to continue their beliefs and practices, because the practice is practical in nature, and potent in all its ramifications.

In this light, local health workers, health educators and other health care providers need to be familiar with the cultural practices of the community before they set out to avoid conflicts so they can function more effectively. And notwithstanding, we suggest that only cultural practices, traditions, customs and beliefs that support health promotion should be encouraged and propagated or modified in the overall interest of the community, however difficult or time consuming it may take.

Traditional Medicine and Disease Prevention

Understanding community culture in the delivery of health services is essential as indicated above, especially when providers acknowledge that traditional health services perform complementary functions especially to orthodox hospitals, clinics and health centers. Constructively, Ofodile (1983) has highlighted some advantages of traditional medicine, these include: (1) traditional medicine has kept a large segment of the population alive prior to the advent of Western orthodox medicine; (2) a sizeable segment of the population in the rural areas (where hospitals are few and doctors ratio is incompatible with the patient population) is being cared for by the traditional healers, and (3) traditional medicine-men who specialize in the native equivalent of psychiatry have been immensely successful in treating various types of mental illness.

Gyoh (1981) indicated that in the rural areas where the majority of the Nigerian population reside, traditional healers or doctors have continued to enjoy the monopoly of treating patients, mainly because of their status among the people, and because many prefer the traditional form of healing for a host of reasons that range from socioeconomic factors to religious, and basic ethnic sentiments. Considering this reality, we must acknowledge the good being done to promote better health in Benin and suggest new strategies to prevent the incidence of diseases. Thus we propose the following disease prevention actions:

* The promotion of personal health: washing of hands before eating and after meals is encouraged. Also, people are advised not to shake hands with strangers as a strategy to avoid infectious diseases.

* Environmental sanitation: early morning sweeping of the house and compound is encouraged. Both men and women are involved in the cleaning exercise which is done before seven in the morning and before they set out for the farm or market. The kitchen is usually made of wood and separated from the main house and they are swept every morning and night (foods are swept away or destroyed). The use of refrigerators to store foods is not common in the rural areas where about 85% of the people reside. Avoid the sharing of buckets and other utensils to ensure that diseases are not transmitted indiscriminately.

* Oral hygiene: encourage the chewing of roots derived from medicinal plants

* Food selection: encourage a blend of fruits such as oranges, pawraw and lemon before and after meals.

* Wrestling combats: encourage the sport of wrestling to promote physical activity. When it is not a farming season, many of the young men are encouraged to engage in physical activities such as the traditional wrestling


The World Health Organisation (WHO) believes that health is not merely the absence of disease or infirmities rather as a state of physical, mental and social well being. This has far reaching implications on the overall health of individuals and communities. Strategies that are ideal should be encouraged in the fight of disease and prevention. This paper as attempted to present a strategy which can be adopted in combating diseases. The strategy may look unscientific on the face value, but a careful review of the specific strategies highlighted such as promotion of personal health and hygiene, isolation of sick people, environmental sanitation among others will help address the incidence and prevalent of diseases in the world community. One of the targets of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is to reduce world mortality rates by two thirds, between 1990 and 2015 (Global Monitoring Report, 2004); the achievement of this goal demand that many strategies be put in place by governments and individuals. This paper has looked inward and it is of the notion that the Benin traditional methods of disease prevention such be accepted as an ideal strategy to fighting diseases that threaten the world.


Amadasun, H. (1987). The Influence of Traditional Beliefs on the Utilization of Health Services among the Benin (Bendel State), Nigeria (a thesis presented to the Department of Physical and Health Education, University of Benin), pp. 1-24.

Edigin, J.(2004).Benin Cultural Norms: Gains and Pains. Benin Journal of Social Studies, Vol.2(4), pp2-13.

Ebohon, O. (1972). Cultural Heritage of The Binis. Benin City: The Commercial Department Midwest Newspaper Corporation, p.5.

Lambo, J.O. (1980) Half Truth about Traditional Medicine in Nigeria, Daily Times, September 17th.

Ling, H.R. (1972). Great Benin: Its Customs, Arts and Horrors. Northbrook: Metro Books Inc, p. 10.

Global Monitoring Report (2004). Executive Summary, Pxvii-xxii.

Gyon, S. Y. (1981) Traditional Medicine: What Role in Modern Society. New Nigerian September 30th.

Oikeh, J. (1982). Health Implications of Selected Beliefs among Edo Speaking Groups of Nigeria. Journal of Society and Environment, Vol. 1 (2), p. 22.

Okon, E. (1992) Cultural Aspects of Health Education in Nigeria. P. H. Goodman publishers, pp 7-14.

Osagie, C. (2004). Traditional Beliefs and Health Education. TZ Publications, p 1-251.

Owie, F.(2004). Health Locus of Control Among the Benin. Journal of Human Ecology, Vol.2 (1), pp22-40.

Udoh, C.O.(1993). Innovations for Rural Health Personal, NAHET workshop Iguobazuwa, pp1-18.

Dr. C.O. Idehen

Senior Lecturer, Department of Health, Environmental Education and Human Kinetics, University of Benin, Benin City,

Nigeria. E-mail:


Professor O.G. Oshodin

Professor, Department of Health, Environmental Education and Human Kinetics, University of Benin, Benin City, Nigeria.
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Author:Idehen, C.O.; Oshodin, O.G.
Publication:Journal of Pan African Studies
Date:Jun 1, 2007
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