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Observations placeholder

Dr William Sargant - The Traditional healers of the Luo tribe in Kenya



Type of Spiritual Experience


Dr William Sargant was born in Highgate, London, in 1907 and educated at Leys School and St John's College, Cambridge.  Up to 1972 he was Physician in Charge of the Department of Psychological Medicine at St Thomas's Hospital, London. He was Associate Secretary of the World Psychiatric Association and on the staff of the Maudsley Hospital, London for many years, He was also Registrar of the Royal Medico-Psychological Association, Rockefeller Fellow at Harvard University and Visiting Professor at Duke University. He was also the author of Battle for the Mind, and The Unquiet Mind.

A description of the experience

The Mind Possessed  - Dr William Sargant

During my first visit to Kenya in 1962 a meeting was arranged with four of the leading witch-doctors, or traditional healers, in the town of Kisumu where the Luo tribe live. A local Court Judge kindly acted as interpreter. My wife and I spent a fascinating two hours talking to the witch-doctors and discussing their problems of healing in relation to modern medicine.

The word 'witch-doctor' is in fact a total misnomer, invented by Europeans. They are the local and often very highly respected medical practitioners of the town or district. Their healing methods are often handed down from father to son, and it would be more appropriate to call them 'traditional healers'. Some have become healers because they have been through a severe illness, have been cured by traditional methods, and so have become interested themselves in curing others. All four of our witch-doctors were extremely interesting and intelligent, and I gather, were among those earning the most in the town………

Most illnesses in Africa, unless clearly diagnosed as organic, are thought to be due to spirit possession. The patient has become possessed by a bad spirit and it is the duty of the doctor to cast it out, or in some way to stop the fight going on between the person and the possessing spirit.

Because I was obviously serious in my inquiries and established a good rapport, one of the healers finally asked me whether I would like to go with him to his compound, some miles outside Kisumu in the bush, to see how he treated nervous illness. This was the opportunity I had been waiting for. We quickly got into the Land-Rover and made our way to the compound. There was a hut adjoining the compound. The patients were summoned from nearby and we were shown a healing ceremony. Two other people looked on and commented to me on the ceremony, through an interpreter.

There was a small number of drummers, and about ten patients to be treated. The 'healer' went to change into his traditional ceremonial robes. The treatment, we were told, would last about a fortnight, and as far as I could gather there would be two curative ceremonies of dancing each day. The patients to whom I spoke through the interpreter were mostly suffering from various forms of neurosis. One described a typical anxiety state, with feelings of tension in the head, another was severely depressed with very severe headaches and was slow and retarded in his movements. The patients were all women, except for the one very depressed man.

When the drumming started, the patients went round and round in a circle and soon several of them started twitching, jerking, performing all sorts of strange bodily movements. They eventually fell to the floor, still jerking and shaking, until the movements gradually ceased. We were seeing, in fact, a repetition of the usual induction of states of excitement leading on to tremendous emotional and muscular discharge, and ending as usual in almost total collapse. While they were jerking and twitching, the 'spirits' possessing them might speak. In the case of one woman an 'ancestral spirit' started to talk when the patient had gone into deep trance.

The witch-doctor paid close attention to what the ancestral spirit was saying, but the patient, being in trance, would probably have no recollection of what had been said.

In spite of these abreactive excitatory states, induced twice a day for two weeks; some of the patients were unable to go into the desired trance and collapse. This was true of one patient suffering from severe depression, for instance, who went circling round and round without apparently getting any relief of his symptoms. On the second day we saw him acting as an assistant male nurse, when he could not go into trance himself, helping the other jerking and entranced patients; when they fell to the ground he helped to contain their wilder movements.

At the end of a very exciting session of abreactive discharge and trance states, we were taken into the healer's hut.

Here a very impressive ceremony ensued. Some of the patients entered with us. The witch-doctor himself then went into trance and the 'ancestral spirits’ started speaking through him instead of his patients. There were two spirits talking, the interpreter told us, one male and one female, although the female was talking in a lower voice than the male. It sounded just like a Punch and Judy show.

The ancestral spirits discussed some of the causes of the illnesses of those in the group. It seemed fairly obvious that, during the repeated phases of trance and collapse, and while the possessing spirits were talking through the patient, and being listened to by the healer, a great deal of information had been picked up about the patients.

It was certainly most impressive to hear psychiatric interpretations and advice given by the ancestral spirits through the mouth of the witch-doctor himself. My wife was particularly conscious of the atmosphere of awe and emotional tenseness that was built up in the darkened hut. The ancestral spirits giving their interpretations seemed far more impressive than the modern psychoanalyst giving his interpretations to the patient on the couch !

The source of the experience

African tribal

Concepts, symbols and science items


Science Items

Activities and commonsteps