Published on HondurasWeekly.com in 2013 and read over 1,700 times.
Trujillo Education Forum Raises Questions on What is Missing as Part of Intercultural Education—Traditional Medicine and Other Knowledge about Plants is Missing.
Part 2 of 5
By Wendy Griffin
The Forum on the Challenges of Bilingual Intercultural Education took place in Trujillo on 11 December 2013 with the participation of the current Minister of Education Marlon Escoto, the co-author of a new book on how or if the African Diaspora is taught in Public School curriculums in Central America Yesenia Martinez, and Pech and Garifuna teachers, leaders, and artisans. Mayors and District Supervisors for all of the Department of Colon are invited. Melesio Gonzales, a Garifuna who worked as a social worker in California for many year, but now has returned to Trujillo, will also be speaking on the issues of drug and alcohol addiction, that are increasingly affecting Garifuna schools and towns. This is the first time such a high level forum has been organized on the North Coast of Honduras to exchange ideas on what is the current situation in the schools of these ethnic groups, and what needs to be done now, to move forward in the Garifuna and Pech communities of the North Coast. The first term of Minister of Education Marlon Escoto was been characterized by action, but he first asked people what were the problems and why they had not been solved already, something unique in high level Honduran government authorities.
All of the ethnic groups concur that this Minister of Education has been very supportive of bilingual intercultural education, which is not something that they have all said about any of the other Ministers of Education in the last 20 years. He has made sure that the Ministry of Education employees actually comply with curriculums that were written three years before, but had not implemented in the classroom, to the point of reviewing unit and lesson plans to see if they complied within a short time and requiring them to redo them if they did not comply.
He instituted computerized registration which shocked everyone, especially when they found dozens of schools did not exist and teachers were being paid for towns that did not exist. When textbooks or dictionaries were sent out from Tegucigalpa for the bilingual intercultural education project, he insisted that Ministry employees make sure that they actually arrived in the schools, and usually in the same week, even in the Mosquitia. He had the bilingual intercultural authorities from Tegucigalpa go out to the communities and meet with the teachers of their ethnic group in the rural areas, something that had not happened for years.
He assigned Pech and Chorti teachers to Departmental Coordinator positions, which had existed for Garifunas for many years, but not for smaller ethnic groups. Pech, Chorti, Lencas, Tolupanes, and Garifunas have all graduated from special secondary programs to train bilingual intercultural education teachers, which for many ethnic groups, especially the Chortis, represented a huge boost in the number of professionals in their ethnic group. Pepe Lobo’s government has been short of money, but what money they did get for education, Marlon Escoto ensured that it was spent well. I have heard people, “El me convence”, which means something like, I really believe he is working. And he is really making the teachers work, and if their skill level is low, to study. When computer registration was required,(not really easy with about half the communities with no electricity), they found many teachers did not even know how to turn on a computer, so that was added to skills they should study.
In spite of all that movement, intercultural education has not flourished, so this is a good time to take stock and ask what is intercultural education and why aren’t we managing to do it?
The ILO Convention 169 on the Human rights of Indigenous and Tribal peoples in Independent Countries which the Honduran Congress approved in 1994and which the Ministry of Foreign Relations ratified in Geneva, Switzerland in 1995, requires the signatory countries to teach the “traditional technologies” of the Indians in the educational programs for them. For all Honduran Indians, a great deal of their traditional technologies have to do with care of, the planting of, the harvesting of, the processing of and use of plants. They care for and use both cultivated plants and wild forest plants from two inch tall plants that grow under water in the Olancho wetlands, to giant trees and 90 foot tall vines, and bromeliads that grow in the 90 foot plants.
The first time I visited the Lancetilla Botanical Garden outside of Tela and saw a cinnamon bush, and found out cinnamon was made from the inner bark of a very nondescript bush, I wondered how did anyone discover cinnamon, which is a widely used bark for tea to treat diarrhea in Honduras? But when the Pech of El Carbon showed me a bromeliad growing 50 feet up in the tree and said that is the plant you should use for enemas if someone is seriously constipated, I was blown away. How went up into the tree originally to get it and tried it out? Because the Pech up until 50 years ago did not know plastic, enemas were applied with the bladders of peccaries, a type of wild boar in the Honduran rainforest, a use that would not have occurred to me having grown up in cities like Detroit and Pittsburgh.
The Pech medicinal plant guide in El Carbon at that time Pablo Escobar, the nephew of a well known Pech healer, said that we the Pech protect the tall trees, because we know there is medicine in them, and there is also medicine below them. In fact, below that try was growing a chichipinse or achiotillo bush. Chichipinse, according to Paul House et al.’s book on Common Medicinal Plants in Honduras, is proven to be antifungal, which is why it is sometimes called mazamora in Spanish because it kills the mazamora fungus, similar to athlete’s feet, but more painful, and antibiotic, and it is also antibiotic to prevent skin infections and helps healing through the rapid formation of scar tissue on open wounds.
While in El Salvador, they export chichipinse soap to help control skin infections, in the African palm district near Trujillo, Honduras the owners of the African palm plantations kill all the chichipinse which used to be abundant there with herbacides. In Trujillo, the Garifunas who have gone to school and learned in agriculture classes to “chapiar” (to cut grass and weeds with a machete) and to leave areas “limpio” (devoid of plants), are constantly cutting down the medicinal chichipinse plants I identify as I walk around to be able to recommend them to people I see with wounds or skin infections, usually from infected bug bites or from being rubbed raw by sandals or ropes for carrying drums.
The Garifunas who know medicinal plants know the uses of chichipinse which has a long name in the Garifuna language, but many young people do not learn about medicinal plants. Honduran schools typical taught that Indians, were “gente sin cultura” (people without culture) because they had not gone to school, and thus there was no need to study with them. The historical terms for North Coast Blacks are worse, usually something along the lines of savages and menaces to civilization. Obviously there was no need to study anything with them.
In fact Honduran schools often followed the teachings of the founder of the Carlyse Indian School in the US, that you should kill the Indian, but save the man. He did that by literally beating the children until they forgot their native language and took them away from home so that their parents could not teach them, such as shown in Rich Heape’s video on Indian Boarding Schools "Our Spirits Don't SpeakEnglish", available through his website. US Native American adults in their 60´s and 70’s still cried in the video to remember their school experiences. This type of education continued in Canada until 1990, and the horror stories are all over Wikipedia article about Indigenous rights.
Not only were Honduran schools not teaching medicinal plants, and instead teaching the kids to hate them as “brujeria” (witchcraft) and as signs of lack of modernity and as part of being a savage, but first the Catholic church, and later the Evangelical churches, such as the Moravian church in the Mosquitia and the protestant churches in the Bay Islands, had similar or even stronger teachings against medicinal plant use. This is the reason that Danira Miralda’s book about the War of Low intensity and the original people of the Mosquitia, is full of comments of “lack of medicine”, when there are over 600 known medicinal plants in the Honduran Mosquitia, but the Moravian church prohibits the church members from seeing the people who know how to divine illnesses and prescribe the plants, the sukya, for being associated with the Mosquitia’s pre-Christian religion.
I do not know why the Mosquitia has such a high rate of infant-maternal death, but it is also likely to be related that the fact that there are almost no government or private healthcare centers in the Mosquitia, and yet the church wants to forbid using the medicinal plants and the traditional people who knew how to dispense them. Even Honduran Ladino midwives use plants in helping to control typical birthing problems like infection, anemia, hemmoraging, prolonged labor, the placenta not coming down, etc. One Pech woman in Culmi who was expecting her 8th child and was malnourished, said she was not concerned about giving birth as there was a Ladino midwife in Culmi who used 8 different plants to treat people, and she had never lost a baby or a mother.
My Garifuna midwife friend Yaya who also uses plant to treat the complications of birth also reports in 70 years of experience only losing one mother and no children. At the TED conference on Maternal health care, a Garifuna woman Katherine Hall Trujillo from Honduras pointed out that the infant and mother mortality was higher in the US than in Honduras. Cartoons in US papers show African babies being born in huts in Africa saying, I am sorry to Black babies being born in Washington, DC because the Black child born in the US is more likely to die than the African child, the same is true for its Mother.
My thought as I was speaking to Hondurans in San Pedro Sula at the UPN in a conference on Intercultural Education, was that it has not gone well for Honduras to try to adopt US models of health and dealing with plants—the Hondurans can’t afford the chemical medicines, they are often not available, they are often not safe especially for young children, there are easily available Honduran medicines for illnesses that US chemical medicines do not know how to cure, and if they let them be lost either through forgetting or refusing to learn them to be modern, or because they lose the land base which the plants grow on or they kill them all with hierbacides, they are going to be much worse off and might even die or have their children. This is in addition to the problem of the hierbacides killing the birds, the animals, the fish, and damaging the humans, such as the Dole banana workers who have won lawsuits regarding the chemicals used to control banana diseases in the Aguan Valley.
The new chief of Moradel Doña Juana is also a traditional healer with plants (curandera), a massage therapist (sobadora), and midwife (partera). She grows food and medicinal plants and some craft plants near her house which she shows to visitors. Some of the foreigners and Honduran-Americans who live in Trujillo have visited her for treatment. One woman commented that she had spent all this money and time and effort to get a foot operation in Houston, Texas in a very sterile environment, which left her foot feeling worse, but after a few treatments of Honduran massage, given in a mud hut in Moradel where the owners still cook with a wood fire and have chickens running around, her foot felt better.
The Pech and Garifunas of the Trujillo area have been invited to speak at a Global Health conference in Seattle, Washington next year, about topics related to health and minority ethnic groups, including topics which are often censured in meetings of hospital trained doctors. The University of Washington (UW) in Seattle has a $30 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to work on the topic of Global Health. In addition to the Medical School, three Anthropology professors at the UW are specifically identified as working in the area of Global Health.
They were especially intrigued by the idea of identifying the best practices of Garifuna midwives who have almost no infant or mother deaths and seeing if they could help the high mother and infant mortality rates among the Miskitos, who probably have access to similar plants, but they just don’t know them, an idea suggested to me by a Miskito Indian Walstead Miller who worked with MOPAWI. We have not been able to get funding to do that exchange yet, but we did document the Garifuna practices and send the books to the Mosquitia. US Medical students from the University of Massechusettes who have come to observe the Garifunas in Trujillo, have commented that US doctors did not know these techniques. A Mexican Anthropologist who has studied midwife techniques in Honduras and in the US, particularly related to Hispanics, also said, the US doctors did not know these techniques and their lack may have caused deaths. The talk proposed for Seattle suggests ways that this exchange could be helped with access to the Internet, and programs like ”Go to Meeting” and video equipment and documentation centers in the area of the ethnic groups of Honduras.
I am sad, because my Garifuna friend Claudio Mejia lost his wife after she had their sixth child in a hospital, due to hemmorging, which a Garifuna midwife can generally control with a strong cup of coffee. Are his six kids orphaned because of a lack of a strong cup of coffee? Also all over Honduras children—Garifunas, Ladinos, Black Bay Islanders, etc. are given something when they are born to make them spit up placental fluid (agua sucia de la fuente), they may have swallowed while being born, because if they don’t do that the child will be sickly (enfermizo), and have asthma and problems with colds and coughs. The recipe varies—sometimes chicken lard or sometimes garlic with rue, but in each case the children do not have asthma when they grow up. In 70 years of treating newborn children that way, none of the children Yaya delivered had asthma. Are millions of US Black kids suffering from asthma because of a lack of properly prepared “fowl fat” (Manteca de gallina)?