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Yvette Parès: An Encounter Between Western Medicine and Traditional African Medicine

By Maryse Berdah-Bah

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Yvette Parès (1926-2009) began her career as an internationally renowned scientist. As a PhD holder in biology and medicine and a researcher at the CNRS, she taught biology at the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar from 1960 to 1992 where she headed the Center for Biological Research on Leprosy from 1975 to 1992. She became the first person to cultivate the leprosy bacillus. When faced with the limitations of Western treatments of the disease, she discovered the potential of traditional African medicine, which she was introduced to by a Peul teacher.

The effectiveness of anti-leprous plants and traditional African medicine

The research conducted by Yvette Parès in the 70s on leprosy brought her to question the treatments offered by Western medicine, which she found to be disappointing (partial recoveries, persistent pain, etc.). It’s at this point that she has a decisive encounter with the Peul practitioner Dadi Diallo, which led Parès to discover the considerable efficacy of traditional plant-based leprosy treatments.
Dadi Diallo accepted to initiate Yvette Parès into African traditional medicine, an event she would later deem “a real miracle”, calling it “extraordinary that African practitioners would put trust in a foreigner”. There was a real risk that these treatments would be recuperated and “pillaged” to benefit Occidental pharmaceutical companies…
Yvette Parès spent fifteen humble years learning the art of African medicine and pharmacopoeia from her teacher, with whom she studied plants, their harvest, and the preparation of treatments. In 1980 she opened a center in the countryside for the treatment of leprosy with Dadi Diallo, in what was a remote location at the time. In 1985, the establishment took on the name of Hôpital Traditionnel de Keur Massar.

At the Hôpital Traditionnel de Keur Massar, tradi-practitioners treat tuberculosis, hepatitis, malaria, AIDS, and various dermatoses.

The Hôpital Traditionnel de Keur Massar, which returned African medicine to its former glory, was the first of its kind in Senegal and perhaps in the world. It was run by Yvette Parès up until 2003, when her advanced age of 78 brought her back to France.

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Homage to Yvette Parès at the Hôpital Traditionnel de Keur Massar

Since its creation, the Hospital has treated hundreds of patients: not only cases of leprosy, but also tuberculosis, hepatitis, dermatomes, and, starting in the 1980s, HIV-AIDS. This is of course in addition to illnesses that are the domain of general medicine such as diabetes, asthma, sinusitis, rheumatisms, malaria, etc. Traditional medicine, which is always plant-based (phytotherapy) is prescribed as much as a prevention as a cure. In parallel, research has been conducted in order to find treatments for the new illnesses that were appearing. The hospital also conducts social work such as offering an education to the children of leprosy patients, for example.
In this era when Western medicine is beginning to question itself on many levels (resistance to antibiotics, frequency of side effects, the exorbitant prices of many treatments) and when a growing number of people — in both Europe and in the United States — are turning to forms of medicine deemed parallel or alternative, one can’t help but pay homage to the pioneering work of Yvette Parès and of her team at Keur Massar.
It’s true that Yvette Parès’ work and research was not always received positively. She claimed that many doctors across Africa were too “taken with the mirage of the West” — in other words, the supposed superiority of western medicine — to accept her ideas. Despite her undeniable scientific competencies, she was also criticized by NGOs defending lepers and AIDS patients to have had the courage to affirm, with evidence to support her argument, that African traditional medicine offers effective treatments of these illnesses.

Seeking out the best of Western and traditional medicine

Important Eastern nations have no complexes when faced with Western medicine: in China, a large number of patients are treated in traditional hospitals, which is also the case in India, where the age-old ayurvedic medicine is still in wide use. In the modern-day world, one should seek out the best of both Western and traditional medicine instead of opposing them and looking upon traditional medicine condescendingly. It should be a source of pride for the Senegalese that they are the heritors of this ancestral knowledge and benefit from such valuable forms of healing. That was the lesson of Yvette Parès, and it was in this spirit that she created the association Rencontre des Médecines in 1998.

Djibril Bâ — secretary-general of the Hôpital Traditionnel de Keur Massar — points out that Yvette Parès, whom he knew well, had a very humanist conception of medicine: "The hospital built by Yvette Parès was like an earthly paradise: she believed that, beyond treatments and medication, a healthy diet and better natural, social, and sanitary conditions were indispensible to the healing process. Patients at the Hospital were well fed and surrounded by their family members. A school was created for their children, and some even married… They were happy, which contributed to their overall well-being. Dr. Parès distributed a ton of rice each month, along with many other foodstuffs. Her achievements are eminently humanitarian."

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