The Healing Benefits Of African Holistic Medicine Whether it's acupuncture, homeopathy, or herbs, many so-called "alternative medicines" have roots in Africa. For more, Farai Chideya talks with Dr. Kamau Kokayi, who runs a holistic medical center.

The Healing Benefits Of African Holistic Medicine

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

More Americans are turning to alternate medicine than ever before. We're talking about acupuncture, homeopathy, or herbs. China has a long history of generating this medical wisdom, but what about African nations? Do their traditions have something to offer in the modern day search for health?

Dr. Kamau Kokayi, has traveled the world to find out the answer. He runs an holistic medical center in New York, which combines western medicine with medical practices from other countries, including many from Africa. Dr. Kokayi, welcome.

Dr. KAMAU KOKAYI (Holistic Medical Center, New York): Glad to be here.

CHIDEYA: Tell us why do you think people are seeking alternatives to Western medicine?

Dr. KOKAYI: I think there's a recognition that there's a - I'm going to use the word, a profound limitation on what can be achieved by just going through your medical - your routine medical visits and treatment. And within that, if you're not feeling well, people are looking for answers to see how they can feel better, how they can improve their health. So more and more people have turned, looked in different direction to see what is available to them.

CHIDEYA: Give us a little bit of your history. Because you've had an interesting walk of going to Yale Medical School and then also traveling the world. What was the spark that set you in both those directions?

Dr. KOKAYI: Well, prior to me going to medical school, I was actually a vegetarian. I was a martial artist. And I got exposed to concepts of diet and nutrition as it impacted health, and I got exposed to concepts of energy with respect to martial arts practice. And I really didn't see any of that in my medical school experience. Along with that, I had a just really open-ended approach to looking at medicine.

Being an African-American, I was not one of the good old boys in medical school. So you can either try hard to be a part of that club, or you can say to yourself, well, gosh, maybe there's some other things that can actually be explored. So Chinese medicine - I've explored that. I explored classical homeopathy. I explored nutrition. I explored other, particularly African cultural arts. And out of that, it just opened a whole worldview to me.

CHIDEYA: Give us some specifics on what African traditional medicine might incorporate into your practice.

Dr. KOKAYI: At the heart of traditional African medicine is God and the ancestors, OK? So now, you have many Africans that want to take advantage of traditional medicine, but they don't want to acknowledge the roots. So the roots, as I'm saying, is understand your relationship with ancestors in terms of ancestors being a part of the community. The use of divination - on the surface, I mean, we've seen different things, maybe on TV or someone is throwing bones or caraway shells and then makes a pronouncement.

But divination is creating a space where you have objects that have a metaphorical representation with respect to elements of a person's life. Divination is something that takes training. And as of all cultures, of course, there's herbal medicine and understanding of diet. But the fundamental premise with African culture is linking everything back, with God and the ancestors being at the central core.

CHIDEYA: We did an interview with someone who is a spiritual leader in one of the many traditional African spiritual practices. And what you're talking about sounds, in many ways, more like spirituality than medicine. Do you see yourself practicing both, or how, I mean...?

Dr. KOKAYI: Well, I mean, I'm a regular doc. So I practice a number of disciplines. But by bringing spirituality into what you're doing, that helps you in terms of being more effective with people. The difficulty in this country, I guess with respect to African-Americans incorporating more traditional African medicine, because traditional African medicine doesn't, in many respects, make that distinction between God and the medicine that they work with, you know, with plants and herbs, right?

African-Americans here have been trained to think that the God they worship is different than the God that's worshipped by indigenous Africans. So, as a result - and they've been trained to, you know, look down on things that are African, you know, so, we'll talk, we'll use words like voodoo or witchdoctor. So part of it is just a mindset. But spirituality - how can you be a healer without embracing some aspects of the spirit? You can't. So there's a real distinction between practicing medicine, the dispension of drugs, making a diagnosis and actually working to heal people.

CHIDEYA: Finally, when you look at the kind of work that you do, but also more broadly at how medicine is practiced, what do you see as the future for the way that people can combine Western medicine and other forms of medical practice?

Dr. KOKAYI: Well, I think we're at an interesting crossroads, because modern medicine has had to acknowledge that there are other forms of medicine because of the way people are spending their dollar. People spend more money seeing alternative practitioners than they do in seeing their primary care doctors. They make more visits to alternative care. The problem is now, that modern medicine is seeking to determine what's efficacious. It's seeking to try to squeeze everything into a biomedical model, in terms of testing and creating whatever evidence that, you know, they need to create, to write an article.

But you can't really do this with energy medicine. So I think that what's going to happen is you're having stronger associations of people that are naturopaths, chiropractors, people doing craniosacral work. So what's happening is that people are getting skills in areas that are allowing them to encroach on things that have previously been treated just by modern medicine. So when you - so people - clinics and hospitals are going to have to move more in the direction of an integrated medical facility.

CHIDEYA: Well, Dr. Kokayi, great to talk to you.

Dr. KOKAYI: I appreciate the time and just to share and put those ideas out there.

CHIDEYA: Dr. Kamau Kokayi is the medical director of Kokayi Health Center for Holistic Medicine. He also hosts the New York radio show Global Medicine Review.

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