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Overseas pre-med volunteering – rite of passage?

by Terry Jhon

Offering to volunteer in medical programs in third world countries involves the aspect of adjusting to new cultures, new mentalities, new rituals that might seem strange to you, the modern person used to a certain type of social patterns.

The professional medical staff going to disadvantaged countries and trying to make a difference always witness all sort of challenges in their process of improving that particular community.

One of the most difficult scenarios you can find yourself in as a pre-med volunteer in a hospital in Africa, for example, is to discover that they still believe blindly in ancient medicine. As a volunteer, your duty is to try and adjust traditional rituals to modern medical practices, showing the people just how much this field has evolved, how efficient things got and how much being open-minded counts.

In researching about African rituals and traditions, I came across some absolutely shocking cases of human mutilation that they not only find normal, but mandatory as well. I’m talking about their custom of embellishing their skins with tattoos and the rite of passage conducted through the circumcision ceremony. These kinds of traditions are a massive taboo for the modern society for the simple fact that we know every human being has the right to decide what to do with their own bodies and not be submitted to cruel old practices just because the others decide to do so. Taking this into consideration, we should ask ourselves this: how do we, as pre-med volunteers, manage to include medical safety measures into their ancient rituals and making them accept it?


African tribal tattoos are related to belief. Ancestors began practicing it to create a way of protecting the person against harm and overcome evil energies. To this day, full body tattoos and facial ones are widely spread in African areas as a part of their culture and customs. Tribes are famous for their rites of passage, the moment when a child is allegedly supposed to embrace adulthood and prove he or she is worth the honor of doing so. Some tribes include tattooing as a test for the candidate in order to check the pain threshold. For a boy, it’s important to prove that he can persevere and endure the pain that can last a few days because his role is to be strong pillar for his family and community, he has to gain his right to hunt and to fight as a warrior. Once he does that, he is free to date and to marry because he is a worthy head of the family. For a girl, this test is simple: if she can take the pain of a tattoo done through a sharp object dragged across the skin, she can endure childbirth, and that is mainly her role within the tribal community.

Circumcision is another example of gruesome tribal practices. The basic idea is not bad, but the way they do it can be regarded as cruel. Also regarded as a rite of passage, the child is forced to go through this experience without any anesthetic, if they are lucky they will receive an infusion made of a “magic” plant. Again, the pain resistance level is of great importance for the above mentioned reasons.

The problem doctors and the pre-med volunteers encounter in these countries is mainly the lack of sanitary conditions, such as performing a circumcision on more people using the same knife increasing the risk of spreading HIV infections. Some tribes accepted a safer way of doing this by appealing to doctors, but most of them still see it mandatory to do it on the banks of a river as a ceremonial rite in poor and unsafe conditions. The good news is that once you convince a few, you can convince many to adapt to a less risky way of keeping rituals alive. Taking this step in your medical career can leave an important print in your future performance, so you could call it a rite of passage of your own.

Tribal structured countries are so deeply rooted in their beliefs that they are not able to conceive changing or adjusting to another type of society. Their rituals are the essence of their identity and their uniqueness and they take pride in it, even if they perform them in very unsanitary and unhealthy manners. It is mandatory for people that come in contact with them to at least try and explain to them the risks involved and the safer methods of keeping their members alive once the sacrificial ceremonies are over.

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