joro shanko

Joro Shanko: Visually Impaired Bonesetter with Healing Hands

The use of traditional bonesetters to treat musculoskeletal injuries is common in Ethiopia. Joro Shanko, who lost her sight while in grade five, is the most sought after by many in this regard. Gaining popularity among urbanites in Addis Ababa, she is known for healing many suffering from bone fractures and various complications. EBR’s Kiya Ali visited Joro at her house, where she provides services to her patients, to learn what makes her distinct.

For the 66-year-old visually impaired woman, Joro Shanko, a traditional bonesetter locally known as Wegesha, listening to the screams of patients who came from all walks of life is part of her day-to-day activities. To absorb the sound and protect her neighbors from the painful voices, Joro prefers to close her door. But, when the bright green door opens, the screams start to stream out of the house again.

Although the agonizing screams are terrifying and shocking for the people sitting on the porch waiting for their turn, none of them hesitate to get inside Joro’s house. The reason is obvious. It is because they have a big trust in the handiness of Joro, a traditional masseuse whom they believe is capable of healing them from bone fractures and various related injuries.

Joro, a mother of five and a grandmother of six, worked as a traditional bonesetter for the past 15 years. She never gets tired of taking care of her patients at her house, located 500 meters away from Abo Mazoria on the way to Mekanisa, along Guinea Bissau Street.

Inside her house there are two rooms from which Joro provides services every day except on Sunday. Before providing a physical examination and to start treating the fractured body, she always queries her patients about the causes of their injuries. Her customers are from all of ages and income groups, but there are exceptions which she does not provide service for. “I don’t treat bone fractures and dislocations caused by a car accident before confirming that the case is settled by the concerned authority,” she says. “I also don’t give service to pregnant women.”

Wagemt is one of the popular traditional services provided by her. Although it is very painful, many knock her door hoping to get this particular service. The treatment involves putting a roped coin with cotton immersed inside kerosene on the injured part of the patient’s body.

While the top of the cotton will be put on fire, it will be quickly covered by a glass to retain the heat. “When I treat my patients with Wagemt, all the wastes and diseases will be collected and accumulated on the area that is covered by the glass,” Joro explains. After the treatment on the body part where the glass was put, the skin of the patient will hold blood and swell. “Yet, this won’t last long,” she says.

Born in Midre Kebdabo and grew up in Arsi Negele, in the state of Oromia, Joro learned the skill by herself, inspired by her parents, both of whom were traditional bone setters. She was able to receive a modern education for a brief period of time, but forced to quit while in grade five after losing her eye sight. That was almost half a century ago. She then left her family and came to Addis Ababa with her aunt.

During the early 1970s, Joro joined a factory that produced umbrellas as a tailor with an initial salary of ETB50, which later increased to ETB242. Meanwhile, she would sometimes masseuse people with dislocated or fractured bones. This became her fulltime job when she retired after working for 28 years in the company, where she was sewing 70 umbrellas a day. Joro’s first successful masseuse experience was 15 years ago when she successfully mended her neighbor’s child’s rotated limbs.

Seeing the daughter of her neighbor fall from a stair and break her leg, Joro took the initiative to heal the girl, whom she managed to relieve shortly after. “I remember the moment when I managed to fix the broken legs of the girl,” Joro recalls. From this day onwards, people started getting aware of her healing ability and patients began to flood her house. However, she did not take this as a business opportunity since patients paid her below ETB10, which has now reached to as much as ETB2,000.

Traditional bonesetters are not uncommon in Ethiopia. Majority of the population still rely on traditional practitioners to get various medical services. Bone setting is one of the popular traditional methods of healing bone fractures and various related injuries, recognized to a level of success comparable to that in modern medicine. Regardless of this success, complications in the form of gangrene, non-union, joint stiffness and infections of limbs caused as a result of traditional bone setting are also common.

Although traditional bonesetters are more common in rural areas where modern health services are not easily accessible, they are also well-accepted amongst metropolitans. Joro is no different. This can be justified by the experiences of her patients, including Fatuma Abdulmenan, whose leg was broken after encountering an accident while walking. “I went to several hospitals, but none of them were able to fix my broken legs. But while I was losing hope on modern medicine, I heard about Joro who had healed many from various injuries,” Fatuma remembers. “I went to her house and got a much better treatment.”

One might wonder what equipment Joro uses to heal her customers. To the surprise of many, she mainly uses her legs and hands to masseuse patients. “I use my legs to put pressure on the injured part of the body and massage it with honey and lemon using my hands,” she says. “Afterwards, I tell my patients to do gymnastic exercises and they are expected to cover the injured part of their body with cabbage when they fall asleep during night”

Joro, who serves at least 15 people a day, receives ETB 2,000 per service. But if the patient is a child, she only charges ETB1,000. If it is a simple injury that could be cured easily, patients are expected to pay between ETB350 and ETB600. Unlike many traditional bonesetters and even modern ones, Joro charges the same price for both locals and foreigners.

Now, Joro is trying to pass her skill to one of her daughters. “I want to pass my knowledge to the next generation,” Joro concludes. But as a disabled person, she still feels the trauma of what she has been through. “After I lost my friend (visually impaired) who fell into a hole in the middle of road, I still fear walking on the streets.”


8th Year • Sep.16 – Oct.15 2019 • No. 78

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