Garifunas Look for Ways to make Traditional Medicine and Hospital Medicine Complementary
By Wendy Griffin
In November 2013, UW’s Medical School sponsored a showing of the movie “Revolutionary Medicine: The First Garifuna hospital”, which was presented together with a talk by Dr. Dolmo, a Garifuna doctor from the hospital in Ciriboya, Iriona, Honduras. This movie also recently showed at the Society for Applied Anthropology conference in Albuquerque, NM in March 2014 and has shown in Central America and New York. Both the Garifunas in Honduras and in Belize have struggled to get Garifuna nurses and doctors assigned to the hospitals and clinics that care for them, and in Honduras there have been many innovative projects between traditional Garifuna health practitioners and the national health system.
These included training buyeis, the traditional shaman among the Garifunas, to recognize the symptoms of HIV/AIDS a project by EMUNEH (The Liason of Black Women of Honduras), training midwives how to deliver babies of possibly HIV positive mothers without contracting HIV themselves, an OFRANEH project supplementing the training of government clinic nurses with how to use traditional Garifuna medicine, especially important if the clinic has no money for Western medicines, a common occurrence, or it is an illness for which Western medicine has no medicine, such as hepatitis or sting ray sting, or the child has an illness which Western medicine does not recognize like “haito”, “empacho”, “aire”, “paletilla”, evil eye “ojo”, “vajo”, “humeru”, or a sunken soft spot “hundida de la mollera”, etc. .
Previously the Honduran government also had traditional older Garifuna midwives work alongside younger doctors who say the midwives often have more knowledge how to deal with difficult births like being born hand first, feet or buttocks first, the baby born with an umbilical cord around its neck, twins, when the placenta does not come down, when there is hemorrhaging, and how to revive the baby if it is not at first breathing due to a prolonged labor, than Honduran university graduate doctors, even if the male doctors were Garifunas themselves.
Geovani Zuniga, one of Garifuna craft people whose crafts were recently donated to the Burke Museum at the University of Washington and were on display at the Society for Applied Anthropology told the following story about his daughter’s birth. His wife had the baby at home with a well known midwife Yaya who is also a buyei or shaman. The labor took a while, and when Geovani’s daughter came out, she was not breathing. Yaya as a buyei always carries a pipe, and so she quickly smoked the pipe and blew smoke on the baby. The baby gasped and began breathing. The girl is now in her early twenties, works and has her own son.
Geovani says, “If my daughter had been born in a hospital, she would have died.” My brother’s friends in Seattle said, “Yeah, we can see that would not go over real well in a Seattle hospital, with its strick no-smoking indoors laws, to smoke a baby.”
When asked why they thought, US and Honduran university trained doctors did not recognized diseases like “empacho” or “haito”, the Garifuna and Pech midwives (parteras) and massage therapists (sobadoras) said, “Maybe the US babies are dying because the US doctors do not know how to recognize and treat these diseases.” Based on what I have seen and been told by people researching medicalcare of minorities in the US, maybe this is true.
The theme of the Western Conference on Global health begins with “Censored”, and the idea that Indians or Blacks in the rainforest might know about some diseases more than doctors in big medical schools in the US know, is definitely a topic in the censured category.
For example, most ethnic groups in Honduras give babies something when they are born to make them spit up the water around them they may have drunk while being born (“el agua sucia de la fuente”), such as garlic with rue, or fowl fat/chicken lard (Manteca de gallina). This prevents children from getting asthma, and prevents a cycle of colds and coughs when they are young. In 70 years of being a midwife, none of the children she has treated this way have developed asthma, says Yaya. Asthma is an extremely common disease among inner-city Black kids in the US. Are they being sick and dying and their parents spending a lot of money in treatments due to the lack of properly prepared fowl fat? This fat can be given at home after the baby comes home from the hospital report Ladino grandmothers in Tegucigalpa, Honduras who also use this recipe. It stops the child from being sickly (enfermizo) with one cold or cough after another a typical problem of US school children in general who bring home an average of 12 colds a year to their families.
A volunteer medical student from the University of Massachusettes Medical School also looked over the results of the study of practices of Garifuna midwives. He said, “US doctors do not know these techniques, and maybe they need to know them.” For example, a Garifuna friend lost his wife after she had their sixth child in a Honduran hospital due to hemorrhaging. Garifuna midwives like Yaya use a strong cup of coffee to stop hemorrhaging. Are my friend’s six childen orphaned at an early age, and he was left alone to raise them for the lack of a strong cup of coffee and for his decision to have the baby in the hospital instead of with a traditional Garifuna midwife? Improving Maternal Outcomes and Reducing Infant and Baby Deaths are two of the Millenium goals set by the UN. The UN has written a report about the state of the world’s midwives, available for free on the Internet.
The Garifuna Emergency Committee, in addition to publishing the book with the information about traditional Garifuna health which was donated in class sets to Garifuna schools as part of the intercultural education program, also sponsored medicinal plant and traditional medicine seminars in two Garifuna communities, in one Garifuna community worked on reforesting traditional Garifuna medicinal plants, and they have represented the Garifunas in Central American regional conferences on medicinal plant use. The Garifuna nurse and doctor associated with this organization have both studied Yaya’s medicinal plant use and prenatal care , delivery, and after birth care of the mother and baby techniques.
While Honduran university students and researchers who have studied medicinal plants in Honduras have not been interested in plants that cure traditional folk diseases which Western medicine does not identify as illnesses, when the Garifuna Emergency Committee decided to reforest medicinal plants, the first one they chose was “flor de muerto” (flower of death, a type of marigold), because it is an important ingredient in some treatments for “Vajo”, an illness caused by being around dead people, and this plant was becoming scarce. It is very common to meet Garifunas who are taking medicine “vajo”, so the belief in the illness and in the medicine to cure it is still very widespread. This illness caused by “vajo” among the Spanish speakers of Honduras is called “hijillo”, but is known as “vajo” among the Pech Indians, too.
Sometimes people active in traditional medicine rise to high positions of authority in the Garifuna culture, including Gregoria Flores, the former president of OFRANEH, the Garifuna’s ethnic federation, was first a buyei, and then a public health promoter and then head of OFRANEH (Fraternal Organization of Blacks of Honduras).
Aurelio Martinez, the Honduran Garifuna musician, composer, and singer who went on to be a congressman in the Honduran government and being recorded on a World Music label in England and who has played in Seattle several times noted Wilbor Guerrero, a Seattle Garifuna resident, gained his early experience in drumming playing for Garifuna ancestor ceremonies done to heal diseases caused by angry ancestors in Plaplaya, Honduras, a village so remote that it is only reached by canoe still today. Roberto Marin, the Garifuna in the YouTube video “Discover the Rio Platano Biosphere in Search of Ciudad blanca” who shows medicinal plants in the rainforest and talks about the destruction of the rainforest in this 2000 video is also from Plaplaya, as is the head of ODECO Celeo Alvarez.
This is the same village as shown in the movie El Espiritu de Mi Mama, available for sale on the Garifuna in Peril website and which shows the whole village pitching in to participate and help with the healing ceremonies.. Aurelio’s life story is beautifully told in the movie “La Aventura Garifuna” filmed by Spanish TV and available for free on the Internet. In this movie he sings the song “Africa” in Garifuna, and there are Spanish subtitles, so you can both see how people’s faces light up and can also know the meaning of the words sung in Garifuna.
Aurelio Martinez also sings Africa in a video on the Rolex scholarship website about the scholarship he received to study World Music with a Senegalese musician in Africa,which was the reason he wrote the song about how some people of our race want to forget where they are from, but I will never forget, and I am going to walk on the sands of the beaches where my ancestors left their footprints, Oh Africa. On this video he sings in Europe on stage with the Senegalese band as a back-up band. In the Aventura Garifuna he sings in a hut on the beach surrounded by Garifunas. While he became famous as a singer and musician of Parranda, a Garifuna style of music accompanied by guitar, he started as a musician for Garifuna religious ceremonies, at an age that most young people are not welcome in the ceremonies.
One technical theory, explored by a Japanese researcher, about why Garifuna ceremonies actually heal people is that the beat of the 4 drums repeated over three days resets the brainwaves, which had been out of sync, and they are put back in sync by the drumming. Although I have had trouble being able to sleep for years, after attending a Garifuna ceremony, I always have a sleepiness that was profound, and I slept well. So while in the Western view, in a healing ceremony with music, the music is not doing anything, maybe it is, in fact, a key part of the healing process. A CD of Belizean Garifuna Ceremonial music called Inside the Temple is available for sale from Folkways Records, a branch of the Smithsonian, the National Museum of the United States. They also have for sale CD’s of popular Garifuna music from both Honduras and Belize and also a CD work songs, a genre of music that is dying out in Afro-Caribbean communities.
The Folkways recording from 1954 of Honduran Garifuna music is thought to be the first professional recording of Garifuna music, and is also interesting as it has liner notes by anthropologist Doris Zemurray Stone, the daughter of the President of United Fruit Samuel Zemurray, whose company employed more than 6,000 Garifunas in Honduras alone at its height. The people who sing in the CD were from a community near the United Fruit company’s former ports of Puerto Cortes and Trujillo. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Truxillo Railroad, a United Fruit subsidiary in the Garifuna area of NE Honduras, and this CD remains as a testimony of the close relationship between US banana companies and their Afro-Caribbean labor. The word banana comes from various African languages where it means both to eat and food, similar to how the word “fan” (rice) is used in the Chinese language. Garifuna healers and midwives like Yaya had clients of all ethnic groups and socio-economic statuses from the mother of the recent Honduran president Pepe Lobo and the Jewish Jamaican born British Consul William Mehlado’s son Daniel and Lloyd’s of London broker on down to Hispanics who cut the weeds under the banana trees, known as “campeños”.