In Zambia, a traditional healer leads by example to stem the spread of HIV

August 13, 2018

Fifteen years ago, Chipo Chilala weighed just 18 kilos, although he was a grown man. He visited all of the traditional healers that he knew to see if they could help. None of them could. 

"I finally went to the clinic and was diagnosed with HIV and TB," Chilala, a traditional healer himself, recalls. 

He started antiretroviral therapy (ART) and has never looked back. He is now in good health, and as a Community Change Agent for the USAID-funded Zambia Community HIV Prevention Project (USAID Z-CHPP), he is committed to referring all of his clients for HIV testing.

In Zambia, where many people visit traditional healers before going to the clinic, Dr. Chilala’s referrals are saving lives. So is the fact that he is living openly and positively with HIV – a living, breathing testimony to the efficacy of ART.

“I know I have to take my medicine every day, or I will die,” he says matter-of-factly.

Under USAID Z-CHPP, the overall goal of which is to reduce new HIV infections in Zambia, Pact and its consortium partners, together with sub-partners, are recruiting Community Change Agents such as Dr. Chilala to engage their local communities in conversations and interventions to promote HIV prevention. This is in recognition of the fact that new HIV infections in the local community cannot be prevented without understanding and addressing people’s norms, beliefs and traditional practices.

In a context where traditional healers are often the first to see sick members of the community – some even claim to be able to cure HIV and AIDS – it is clear why Dr. Chilala has such an important role. Since being trained as an HIV prevention champion by Pact and its partner for the Southern Region, Zambia Health and Education Trust, Dr. Chilala has referred more than 150 clients for HIV testing. He has spoken publicly on the radio and at community events about his HIV-positive status and the importance of HIV testing and proper adherence to treatment. He meets with other traditional healers, including those who still maintain that they can cure HIV and AIDS, to share his knowledge and encourage them to refer clients for HIV testing and to be tested themselves.

“Traditional healers cannot cure HIV and AIDS," Dr. Chilala says.

"The reason I am alive today is due to antiretroviral therapy.”


USAID Z-CHPP is a five-year cooperative agreement with USAID from 2015-2020 to reduce new HIV infections in Zambia. The project has a package of combination prevention activities in 14 districts across five provinces, selected due to their high HIV burden. The activities include engaging a range of cultural custodians and community volunteers in HIV prevention initiatives.