Traditional Medicine Continues to be Important in Garifuna Culture Even in the US
By Wendy Griffin
Even though the Afro-Indigenous Garifunas now live in many large US cities including New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, Atlanta, as well as Seattle, the Garifunas continue to use extensively traditional health practitioners. These include massage therapists (sobadoras), herbalists who recommend medicinal plants, process parts of some animals into medicine and sometimes even prescribe medicinal fish among the Garifunas (curanderas), and midwives (parteras) and shaman (buyeis). According to UN studies, all over the world, traditional medical systems exist side by side with Western models of medicine which they call Biomedical medicine and which Hondurans tend to call “enfermedades de hospital” (illnesses for which you need to go to the Hospital).
Doctors, nurses and midwives in big US cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Seattle often have to deal with immigrants who have different belief systems about the causes of illnesses, how they are treated, how they are prevented, etc. due to not only to populations of immigrants from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean, but also because of US Native Americans and Latin American Indians in these large US cities. The clashes between Navajo Indian beliefs about health, wellness, sickness, and death and Anglo US beliefs about these topics are frequent themes for examples in the popular Tony Hillerman murder mystery novels, which often have Navajos who live or have lived in Los Angeles in them.
US Blacks, especially in the South, still have some traditional beliefs about treatments of diseases and about nutrition, especially for young children, that US medical professionals need to take into account, but often are unaware that they exist. Not only US Blacks use these alternative sources of health advice and treatment, but the US whites in the South also sometimes used them, like a nurse in South Georgia whose baby had thrush, a yeast infection in its throat that had not gotten better after weeks of treatment by a doctor. While visiting the local “conjah” doctor, who was also the woman who did her mother’s ironing and she had gone there to pick it up, the “conjah” doctor offered to treat the baby, and did. Overnight the yeast infection cleared up. In New Mexico, there is an annual conference of “curanderos”, Hispanic traditional healers who are treating New Mexico’s many Hispanics. So the issue of intercultural encounters regarding traditional medicinal beliefs is quite a large one in the US.
Also for certain types of illnesses, such as those caused by unhappy ancestor spirits, known as “gubida” in Garifuna, the Garifunas consult traditional shaman, who can be men or women, known as “buyeis” in Garifuna. There are Garifuna bueyeis in some US cities like New York. Examples of Garifunas consulting “buyeis” over the cause of an illness, can be seen in both of Ali Allie’s Garifuna movies-- El Espiritu de Mi mama (the Spirit of My Mother) and Garifuna in Peril. The last played in the Langston Hughes Film Festival in Seattle and the Bronze Lens Film Festival in Atlanta, as well as other places around the US, Canada, Central America, Caribbean, African, Europe, and South America this year, winning 3 awards in the US and 1 in Europe.
A Garifuna ceremony to cure illnesses caused by ancestors a “chugu”, was also shown in Telesur’s Causa Justa program “Tierra Negra” about the Honduran Garifuna’s land problems, and similar ceremonies also formed part of Univision’s Medicina Desconocida television series which started in February 2014 where the program “Magia Garifuna” is about the medicine of the Guatemalan Garifunas. That show will also show Mayan religious practices to restore health, and “curanderos” in Guatemala as the Director is from Guatemala and a strong believer in alternative medicine.
The elaborate and often expensive healing rites recommended by buyeis, such as the one day chugu, and the most elaborate “dugu” which takes 3 years to complete all the steps, have been the subject of several studies, both in Central America (Honduras, Belize and Nicaragua) and in New York. These ceremonies which include days and nights of dancing, singing in the Garifuna language, drumming, and the offering of food and drink to the ancestors, were the subject of Ali Allie’s first Garifuna film. “El Espiritu de Mi mama” (The Spirit of My Mother) was originally distributed nationally by Blockbuster Video and now is available for sale on Amazon.com that has a lot of Garifuna books, Cd’s, and videos, and on the Garifuna in Peril website, www.garifunainperil.com where the Garifuna in Peril movie is now available for ordering, and is on sale through 1 April.
The dugu ceremony of the Garifunas of Central America is similar to the Convince religion of Maroons in Jamaica and also similar to some Afro-Cuban traditional religious beliefs. Garifuna sailor Sebastian Marin said he has danced dugu with the Maroons of Jamaica and with Afro-Cubans in Havana. The main musical beat of the drums of the Garifuna ceremony dugu, is known in the US as an Afro-Cuban “voodoo” or traditional religion beat, according the US musician Mike Montano.
Garifuna sailor Simeon Marin also reported seeing ceremonies similar to the Garifuna ceremony chugu among Afro-Venezuelans and in Trinidad. While some elements of West African traditions as found in Garifuna religious and health practices, the base of the beliefs of causes and treatment of illnesses through ancestor ceremonies among the Garifunas seems to be related to beliefs about illness/wellness and ancestors of speakers of Bantu languages which extended from the Congo to South Africa, described in Wikipedia articles on Traditional Southern African medicine, among others. Wikipedia has a whole series of articles on Afro-Latin American religions of varying quality, and also an article on dugu which needs to be improved.
As shown in “El Espiritu de Mi Mama”, which is about a Garifuna woman in Los Angeles who is troubled by dreams of her mother, and who goes home to Honduras to consult buyei to see what it is the mother wants, the illnesses which are specific to the Garifuna culture, can affect the Garifunas in the US as well as in Central America.
For example, a Honduran Garifuna friend’s granddaughter was in the hospital for three weeks this summer in New York City where she lived, before her family realized it was not a hospital illness, but an illness caused by “gubida” and quickly took her home. “Gubida” do not like hospitals. Illnesses caused by “gubida” or ancestor spirits have also affected Garifunas on ships, where hundreds of Garifunas still work as sailors. Some Garifuna sailors and their families live in Atlanta, Houston, New York, and Miami. If the Garifunas take Western medicine, but they have not solved their problems with the “gubidas” or ancestor spirits, the medicine will do no good, it is believed. First they have to solve the issues with the “gubida”, then they can get well.
Another example of an illness that is common among all Honduran ethnic groups, except university trained doctors, is called “empacho”. Sometimes “empacho” causes the belly to bloat up and it is hard like a drum, and the baby does not go to the bathroom. Adults who have “empacho” also complain of pain. However, other types of “empacho” can have terrible diarrhea, that often smells bad, and sometimes even has green mucous. Among many Hondurans ethnic groups, one of the diagnostic tests for knowing if someone has “empacho” is to take their pulse, because if they have “empacho”, a gifted healer can feel little balls (pelotitas, bolitas) in the blood.
In every case, the person with “empacho” should have a vigorous massage not just of the whole abdomen, but also of the whole body. Something is often passed over the body, for example salt in a spoon. The person is given something medicinal to drink for example sugar and salt in water, more salty than sweet, which is not a purge at this point. After they feel better, say the next day or two, that is when they take something to purge out their insides. In the presence of green mucus, the person should take an antibiotic, too. Detailed discussions of Pech Indian and Garifuna diagnosis and treatments of Honduran folk diseases are in the books Los Pech de Honduras and Los Garifunas de Honduras.
Every Honduran town has someone who does this massage (una sobadora). Both men and women know how to do this treatment. Unfortunately I know of two cases where Miskito students were taken to a hospital in Tegucigalpa, rather than to a sobadora, because the person taking care of them was an Evangelical Christian taught not to believe in traditional medicine.
At this university associated hospital the doctors operated on these two Miskito students who had empacho and they died. The parents of the students were furious. No one dies in the Mosquitia, or in any traditional Honduran village of “empacho”. The person who took the students to Tegucigalpa to study thought the Miskito parents would be so excited and pleased that they would vote for him for Congress. In the end, after they saw their children had been cut open, he was lucky that they did not send someone to kill him, and that was the end of his political career in the Mosquitia.
The issue of traditional people and modern medicine and health and how these two medical systems interact will be a topic at the upcoming Western Internal Health Conference in Seattle in April 2014. This conference is being hosted in conjunction with the Global Health program at the University of Washington which has received a $30 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Wendy Griffin and Seattle Garifunas are participating with a table and poster session with discussion sharing the results of their research of Garifuna traditional medicine, especially in the area of care of pregnant women and young children., while Honduran anthropologist Adalid Martinez will share his work on Maya Chorti traditional medicine. There is a free book available on the Internet about Maya Chorti and Lenca health beliefs in Honduras done by the Honduran Ministry of Health.
The Maya Chorti were the builders of world famous archaeological sites like Copan Ruinas, in Honduras, Joya de Ceren in El Salvador, and Quirigua, in Guatemala. Though their organization CONIMCCH which has a website the Honduran Mayan Chorti have recently opened a traditional health clinic, for both massages and plant medicine, “green pharmacies” which sell medicinal plants and have a traditional medicinal plant garden in Corralitos, which is available by moto-taxis, from Copan Ruinas, where CONIMCHH has an office, craft exhibit, small hotel, and Internet Café. The Maya Chorti were helped in their aspirations to have a health clinic and trained people to do massage and prescribed plants through the organization of retired Catholic Priest Padre Fausto Milla, whose organization is INEHSCO Honduran Ecumenical Institute of Services to the Community. Although he has healed thousands of people through traditional medicine and is an author of a book on it and writes newspaper columns and radio shows about good nutrition and safe food and medicinal plants, including he healed anthropologist Adalid Martinez of lung cancer 10 years through traditional Western Honduras medicinal practices which Adalid documents in his book La Casa de Salud de Padre Fausto, the corporate charter of this organization is being canceled by the new Honduran government of Juan Orlando Hernandez, along with almost 5,000 other NGO's some of which like Red Comal and watergroups Juntas de agua and Gays de San pedro work in the areas of health, safe food, good nutrition, and clean adequate supplied of water. The Assistant of Padre Fausto asked for and received political asylm in Spain. The situation has grownmuch worse since the new government took power 25 Janaury 2014.