African Customary and Social Practices Review

How African Customary and Social Practices have been Utilized to Enhance Coping Strategies in Times of Crisis, focus on health pandemic

Background of the Study

Centuries before missionaries and colonialists arrived in Africa and centuries before the slave trade commenced, Africans in Africa had cultural and social practices and mechanisms to sustain their societies and to prevent the loss of lives during crises. The practices and mechanisms included health education practices, procedures for managing illnesses, and procedures for preventing the spread of illnesses through societies (Iganus & Haruna, 2017). In cases where African mechanisms helped to handle and manage health crises, it is believed that it was because the successful mechanisms took into account the socio-economic situation on the ground and wholesomely addressed the health crises and the related social and economic effects. Most of the mechanisms were initiated after elders or senior members of African societies met and discussed crises and suggested ways to handle them based on historical knowledge.

Traditional African societies had their understanding of the world and the different things in it. Most African societies across the continent believed that there is the seen world and the unseen world. The seen world includes everything that can be seen, while the unseen world includes the spirit world, spirits, magic, and so on. Many African societies believed that diseases were part of the unseen world (White, 2015). As per the WHO (World Health Organization), despite the introduction of new health care practices, procedures, and systems in African societies by missionaries and colonialists many years ago, many African societies still depend or heavily rely on various African traditional medicine (WHO, 2001). As per the WHO (2001), traditional health care/ medicine includes all the practices and knowledge, whether logical or not, which is used to prevent, diagnose, treat or manage any social, mental, and physical diseases. Traditional medicine was frequently learned through observation and experience and passed down generations orally and sometimes in written form.

Considering how big Africa is, it is no surprise that many different novels and old customary practices are encouraged and adhered to across the continent. Over the years, it has been noted that most customary practices have been modernized to reflect modern realities. Nevertheless, the purpose of customary practices is the same whether they are old or modernized, and that purpose is to promote the examples set by the ancestors. According to Worden (2012), customary practices in African societies can improve the survival and coping capabilities of individuals and communities as it has happened in the past. Improving survival and coping capabilities of African societies and communities through customary practices is quite important right now considering the volatile political and socio-economic conditions across the continent and the reports of starvation, extreme poverty, and violence in various areas throughout Africa.

Most studies on how crises were managed in traditional African settings focused on economic, political, and security crises. The overwhelming majority of the studies focus on conflicts and how they are managed via customary practices and strategies. There are not many studies that look at how health crises were managed to utilize social and customary practices. It is also important to note that African literature (written) does not include many works on how pandemics were managed. This situation justifies the need for more research into the customary practices and strategies that were used in Africa to cope with and to survive health crises and pandemics.

Problem Statement and Significance of the Study

Many social practices have remained unchanged for a long time and can, therefore, be regarded as customary social practices or customary practices in short. Some customary practices in Africa and elsewhere across the world are coping mechanisms; they help people to survive crises, e.g., pandemics, political turbulence, and economic downturns. These practices also help individuals to cope with health crises and can indeed help people cope with the current global coronavirus pandemic. This research is an attempt to find out social and customary practices that have been used to cope with crises, and that can be used to cope with the current global coronavirus pandemic.

This research is especially significant because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Because most health care systems across the African continent are weak, governments can utilize social and customary practices and strategies to enable communities to cope with and to survive the devastating effects of coronavirus. Therefore, the social and customary practices and strategies that will be identified by this study can show policymakers and governments of the effective practices and strategies they can use to enhance the coping capacity of their people. The identification of coping and survival practices and strategies by this study can also remove the need for governments and policymakers to spend a lot of money on research and analysis and to instead spend that money directly on promoting the health care of their people.

Theoretical Foundations and Conceptual Framework

Religious and traditional leaders are very important in African societies. The moment an outbreak is suspected or confirmed, this theory suggests that concerned health personnel (doctors and nurses) should investigate and come with awareness campaigns that target religious and traditional leaders (imams, pastors, village headmen, and chiefs) (Manguvo & Mafuvadze, 2015). The leaders should then find capable individuals in their areas to help them to spread awareness campaigns and to implement preventive measures, e.g., mask-wearing and proper burial of infected persons.

Purpose of the Study

Many social practices have remained unchanged for a long time and can, therefore, be regarded as customary social practices or customary practices in short. Some customary practices in Africa and elsewhere across the world are coping mechanisms; they help people to survive crises, e.g., pandemics, e.g., coronavirus, political turbulence, and economic downturns. Therefore, the purpose of identifying customary practices and strategies that can help individuals and communities to cope is to help policymakers and government officials. Help them to find them out and to focus on promoting them so that they can boost the survival and coping capability of the people they are responsible for. The purpose is to also help the government with strategies that they can use to help people directly instead of spending a lot of money to search for and analyze new strategies.

While the social and customary practices and strategies can help individuals and communities to cope, they are not replacements for official government strategies and efforts to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and its related effects. However, governments that do not have plenty of funds will benefit from adapting and promoting such practices and strategies because these are cheap, and their effects are very positive. The purpose of this present study is to discover the social and customary practices that are utilized to boost coping during health crises such as the current pandemic.

Research Question(s) and/or Hypotheses

Scientific methods of fighting the spread of diseases and pandemics are preferred throughout the globe. This is because they are logical and science-based, and their results are predictable. In contrast, religious and traditional practices for fighting diseases are usually not preferred (Airhihenbuwa, 1995). Nevertheless, several health crises such as the Ebola emergency in Central and West Africa revealed that the utilization of scientific methods only is not very effective if there is no adoption of a holistic approach that takes into account contextual factors. For instance, according to (Fairhead, 2014), while the governments of West African countries quickly adopted scientific methods to prevent the rapid spread of the Ebola pandemic in their countries, there was significant resistance to some of the scientific methods/ ways. The resistance was partly attributed to the strong influence of cultural and religious beliefs and practices in the affected countries. Therefore, for such governments, the better way of stopping the spread of Ebola could have been by adopting holistic approaches that take into account religious and cultural beliefs. Therefore, it is important to recognize the importance or influence of cultural and religious practices in health promotion. Consequently, the following are the questions that this research will seek to answer.

R1: What are the customary practices in African communities?

R2: What customary practices can be used to improve survival ability and coping in crises such as health pandemics?

R3: What factors can be used to improve the potential of relevant coping customary practices in the current pandemic?

Rationale for Methodology

This study will utilize a qualitative research method that will collect data using a survey. Questionnaires will be the actual tool that will be utilized to gather data. This is because of the following reasons. First, the recent Ebola crisis in Africa revealed the potential of social and customary practices in affecting health crises. The crisis, which affected much of West and Central Africa, showed that some religious and traditional practices could lead to the rapid spread of pandemics, while other religious and traditional practices can help in containing diseases (Manguvo & Mafuvadze, 2015; Richards et al., 2015). Given that the goal of this study is to find out detailed and in-depth information about how social and customary practices affected Central and West African communities, the use of the qualitative research design is very appropriate.

Second, qualitative research methodology has three key characteristics: (a) it involves purposeful sampling to ensure information is specific and not automatically generalizable; (b) it pursues new lines of investigations when they emerge; and (c) it is a naturalistic methodology (Patton, 2014; Stuckey, 2013). These characteristics, coupled with the fact that qualitative research methodology focuses on how people understand experiences, make this methodology the best for finding out customary and religious practices that negatively contributed to or helped restrain the Ebola pandemic from participants who have firsthand information.

Lastly, the qualitative research method is appropriate because it takes into account how people interpret their experiences individually and socially. Therefore, it is a methodology that has the potential to provide the in-depth information needed.

Definition of the Terms

Coping, according to VandenBos (2007, p.232), is the use of cognitive and behavioral strategies to manage difficult situations that are taxing or that surpass one’s ability to reduce negative emotions.

Community participation, according to Marsland (2006, p.67-68), is the empowerment of residents to engage in making decisions that affect them and to participate in activities that are meant to benefit them.

Cost-sharing, as per Abel-Smith and Rawal (1992), is a method that was utilized in several African states such as Tanzania to promote self-reliance and cut government spending.

Customary practices are established practices that are inherited from past generations that work as unwritten laws for many African communities. Customary practices touch on almost every aspect of life in African societies. Some of them are negative, while most are regarded as positive (Handler, 2016).

Social capital means factors such as interpersonal relations, a shared sense of identity, shared understanding, shared values, trust, cooperation, shared norms, reciprocity, and others that are common in functioning social groupings (Yama, 2020, p.170).

Summary and Organization of the Remainder of the Study

This section introduced the study, including the background of the study, the purpose of the study, and the research questions. The methodology of the study was also introduced, and the rationale for using it was given. The next section/ chapter will review the current research, and the next chapter will describe the research design, the methodology, and the procedures for this study.


Abel-Smith, B., & Rawal, P. (1992). Can the poor afford ‘free’ health services? A case study of Tanzania. Health Policy and Planning, 7(4), 329-341.

Airhihenbuwa, C. O. (1995). Health and culture: Beyond the Western paradigm. Sage.

Fairhead, J. (2014). The significance of death, funerals, and the after-life in Ebola-hit Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia: Anthropological insights into infection and social resistance.

Handler, J. S. (2016). Custom and law: The status of enslaved Africans in seventeenth-Century Barbados. Slavery & Abolition, 37(2), 233-255.

Iganus, R. B., & Haruna, A. (2017). The Strength of African Culture in Managing Family Crisis in a Globalized World. Anthropol, 5(197), 2332-0915.

Manguvo, A., & Mafuvadze, B. (2015). The impact of traditional and religious practices on the spread of Ebola in West Africa: time for a strategic shift. The Pan African Medical Journal, 22(Suppl 1).

Marsland, R. (2006). Community participation the Tanzanian way: Conceptual contiguity or power struggle? Oxford Development Studies, 34(1).

Patton, M. Q. (2014). Qualitative research & evaluation methods: Integrating theory and practice. Sage publications.

Richards, P., Amara, J., Ferme, M. C., Kamara, P., Mokuwa, E., Sheriff, A. I., … & Voors, M. (2015). Social pathways for Ebola virus disease in rural Sierra Leone, and some implications for containment. PLoS neglected tropical diseases, 9(4).

Stuckey, H. L. (2013). An overview of the rationale for qualitative research methods in social health. Journal of Social Health and Diabetes, 1(01), 006-008.

VandenBos, G. R. (2007). APA dictionary of psychology. American Psychological Association.

White, P. (2015). The concept of diseases and health care in African traditional religion in Ghana. HTS Theological Studies, 71(3), 01-07.

Worden, N. (2012). The Making of Modern South Africa: Conquest, Apartheid, Democracy. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

World Health Organisation (WHO), (2001). Legal status of traditional medicine and complementary/alternative medicine: Worldwide review. WHO, Geneva.

Yama, H. (2020). Laugh and Laughter as Adaptation in Human Being: Past and Present. In Adapting Human Thinking and Moral Reasoning in Contemporary Society (pp. 156-175). IGI Global.

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