The possibility of greater collaboration between Traditional Healing and Biomedicine

It is only by ‘digging deep and reaching wide’ (Mahina-2018) that we gain an appreciation of the deeper implications of what faito’o and the search for healing means in a Tongan context.

In the deeper implications and meanings we find more spaces for possible collaboration between traditional and western medicine. The response of many Tongan people to the documentary is that this collaboration is clearly desired.

The WHO Representative Dr Yutaro Setoya gave this feedback:

‘ I think when showing the film in Tonga, from my perspective we need to make sure that people get the message on where to seek help, and this may or may not match what people say in your film. My stance is, both sides have place to work. However the traditional healers (and the population) should know when it is beneficial to come to hospital. We usually say: psychosis and epilepsy is best treated at psychiatry, and also severe depression and bipolar. For anxiety disorders and mild depression and other relatively minor mental disorders, traditional healers could do excellent job. Psychosis bit maybe disputable based on the film- may be atypical, acute psychosis maybe treated by healers, but typical and or chronic case I think still beneficial from psychiatric treatment. ‘ (March 2020)

Collaboration could also address the implications of psychiatric terms for Tongans and explore one, if not the most important challenge facing psychiatric treatment, the stigma associated with diagnosis and treatment.

This resource and virtual talanoa space gives access to further information to set the stage for this collaboration, a process that has resonance with the idea of weaving distinct ideas together in the production of creating a koloa, a item of Tongan value. The following are some key areas and questions to consider:

  1. What are the deeper implications of key Tongan terms such faito’o, ‘Tofoto’o -to ask for medical treatment (by native methods)’ Tukuto’o -to give a present to a doctor after the patient has recovered. It was formerly believed that this would prevent the disease from returning to the patient from the doctor, who was thought of as having taken the disease away.’  (Churchward 1959). What are the implications of to’o, that is common to all stages of Tongan traditional treatment?  Faito’o, literally means doing the to’o.
  2. We need to understand the diversity of healers in Tonga and a diversity of engagement with the ideas and practices of bio-medicine. In chapter four of my thesis I analyse that diversity, you can access that here. Traditional healers cannot be generalised as a category, and as a result there will be many possible collaborations possible.
  3. How does anthropology and medical anthropology have value for psychiatry more broadly is a question that follows Dr Puloka’s use of anthropology to frame his translations of psychiatric concepts.  Bonnie Kaiser’s 2019 article ‘Why Psychiatry Needs the Anthropologist: A Reflection on 80 Years of Culture in Mental Health‘ is a good reference point.
  4. How have other countries explored and realised collaboration between traditional healers and doctors? Are there lessons that can be found? Together for Mental Health is a research project in Ghana and Indonesia that has strong resonances in its attention to faith based healers. We look forward to following the results and exploring possible inspirations for how collaboration might work in Tonga and in New Zealand?
  5. The precedent for collaborative mental health therapy has already been set in New Zealand between Māori healers and psychiatrists. The book ‘Collaborative and Indigenous Mental Health Therapy‘  by Wiremu NiaNia, Allister Bush and David Epston is remarkable for its detail and attention to process of healing. It features deep insights from the traditional Māori healer, Wiremu NiaNia.
  6. We must also recognise that many people have their own remedies for particular conditions. It is not only traditional healers who hold traditional knowledge but according to Emeline Lolohea, it is only a traditional healer who has healing ancestry and has gone through the appropriate process of transmission of healing potency who can deliver the best results. Clearly not all faith based and healers practicing traditional medicine have this ancestry. Does this impact on their efficacy in practice?
  7. Many questions of health are discussed and presented in the context of Christian faith and practice, as the Tefisi Youth Performance video demontrates. Any collaboration should draw on the powerfully  transformative faith based engagement with healing, while acknowledging the limits and specific areas in which faith based healing may not be as effective as hospital based medicine. The area of social support, as Dr Puloka outlines, is vital in this regard.
  8. There are still many aspects of Tongan traditional healing that remain to be documented and explained in ways that draw on the deep implications of terms and processes. For example, two terms that describe the working of the tulu’i, taka and kalakala, need to be better explored.


The idea and experience of an all encompassing spiritual realm connects Emeline Lolohea and Dr Mapa Puloka. It seems inevitable that any collaboration must have a strong faith base delivery and motivation.

Please share below your thoughts and experiences and talanoa on our dedicated facebook group.



tui, v.i., to believe, to believe in or on. N., belief ; faith ; creed. Also: v.t., to put in, insert. V.t. or s-t., to put on, to wear. N., knee. (Churchward 1959)