Journal of Genetic Counseling

, Volume 19, Issue 1, pp 9–21 | Cite as

Grandmothers as Gems of Genetic Wisdom: Exploring South African Traditional Beliefs About the Causes of Childhood Genetic Disorders

  • Claire Penn
  • Jennifer Watermeyer
  • Carol MacDonald
  • Colleen Moabelo
Original Research


With its diverse cultural and linguistic profile, South Africa provides a unique context to explore contextual influences on the process of genetic counseling. Prior research suggests intergenerational differences regarding models of causation which influence treatment-seeking paths. This pilot study therefore aimed to explore South African traditional beliefs regarding common childhood genetic disorders. Three focus groups were conducted with fifteen grandmothers from different cultural backgrounds in an urban community. Questions pertained to the role of the grandmother, traditional beliefs regarding causes of genetic disorders, explanations of heredity, and prevention and management of genetic disorders. Results indicate a variety of cultural explanations for causes of childhood genetic disorders. These causes can be classified into categories related to lifestyle, behavior, social issues, culture, religion, genetic, and familial causes. Prevention and treatment issues are also highlighted. These findings have implications for genetic counseling practice, which needs to include a greater focus on cultural issues.


Genetic counseling Traditional beliefs Models of causation Culture South Africa Grandmother Qualitative research Focus groups 



This paper was presented at the 13th South African Society for Human Genetics Conference in Stellenbosch, 5–8 April 2009. The authors would like to acknowledge the assistance of the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies (STIAS), the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the South African-Netherlands Research Programme on Alternatives for Development (SANPAD). The authors would also like to thank the translators and transcribers who worked on the data.


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Copyright information

© National Society of Genetic Counselors, Inc. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Claire Penn
    • 1
  • Jennifer Watermeyer
    • 1
  • Carol MacDonald
    • 1
  • Colleen Moabelo
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Human and Community DevelopmentUniversity of the WItwatersrandJohannesburgSouth Africa

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