World Health Conference in Seattle to Consider “Censored” Topics Relating to Health and Traditional Peoples, Especially Traditional Women (Part 1 of 2)
By Wendy Griffin
The issue of traditional people and modern medicine and health, how these two medical systems interact, and health as a human rights issue, will be topics at the upcoming Western International Health Conference (WRIHC) hosted at the University of Washington 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. This Global Health project in addition to the University of Washington’s Medical School also includes three anthropologists of the Anthropology Department who are designated as working in Global Health.
Wendy Griffin and Seattle Garifunas will share the results of their research of Garifuna traditional medicine, especially in the area of care of pregnant women and young children, as well as share information about traditional health projects in Honduras, recruit volunteers, and tell about wikipedia’s Health and Wikipedia Translations projects. A Honduran anthropologist who works with the Maya Chorti of Honduras, Adalid Martinez, will also be presenting.
Adalid’s personal story in relation to traditional medicine is interesting as he was cured of lung cancer about 10 years ago by traditional Western Honduras medicine (based in Lenca and Maya traditions) after he had been sent home to die by a clinic in Honduras after chemotherapy failed to kill the cancer. He wrote a book about his experience “La Casa de Salud de Padre Fausto” (The House of health of Father Fausto). After being cured, he returned to work as a high school principal, as an anthropology professor on the weekends, he has published several books and seen his grandson born, and is active in the Honduran secondary teacher’s union COPEMH, in Alcoholics Anonymous, and in the Network of Local Historians, so he is not just “cured”, but active and productive and of course, grateful.
Padre Fausto Milla is a retired Catholic priest who runs a traditional medicine clinic in Santa Rosa de copan and has a traditional Honduran medicine project to help cure the illnesses of the poor through plants, massage, changes in diet, and sometimes geo-therapy. Padre Fausto’s organization INEHSCO(Instituto Ecumenico Hondureño de Servicios a la Comunidad/Honduran Ecumenical Institute of Services to the Community) has been helping the Maya Chorti set up their clinics and green pharmacies, and has been active in trying to get the Honduran Catholic church to adopt plant medicine as a social justice issue, to make medicine available to the poor, a very different idea from traditional Catholic Church thinking in Latin America. He has been an active member of the Honduran Council on Health, and he helped open the discussion between institutions controlled by the Honduran government like the Ministry of health and the UNAH about the topic of allowing medicinal plants to be openly documented and sold. Even after I arrived in Honduras in 1985, there have been anti-witchcraft campaigns in Honduras that mostly resulted in medicinal plant sellers being driven from the center of Tegucigalpa, the capital. Of the over 90 medicinal plants sold in medicinal plants in Tegucigalpa, the UNAH found all were used for medicine, not witchcraft. This tension of medicinal plants seen as witchcraft and traditional healers as witches is reported elsewhere in Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa.
Honduras’s statistics for mother and infant mortality in general are better than those than of US hospitals in regards to African American women and young children, noted Katherine Hall Trujillo at a TED conference which was videoed and is available on Flickr, and those delivered with Garifuna midwives are especially good. For example, Yaya, a Garifuna midwife who is now 94 years old, in more than 70 years of being a midwife, both to Hispanics and to Afro-Hondurans, never lost a baby, and only lost one mother. One of the people she and her cousin helped bring into this world was the president of Honduras until Janaur 2014, Pepe Lobo. He has said he is a supporter of traditional health programs and Intercultural Education programs for Afro-Hondurans and Honduran Indians because he was brought into the world safely and had his umbilical cord cut by a traditional Garifuna midwife. Sometimes even Presidents in Latin America or foreigner living in Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean need help from traditional medicine practioners.
Yaya, the Garifuna midwife’s instructions for how to care for pregnant women, deliver babies, and care for mothers and babies after birth are in the published book “Los Garifunas de Honduras”, and in the upcoming publication of her biography “Yaya: La vida de Una curandera Garifuna” (Yaya: the Life of a Garifuna healer) in English and in Spanish by the academic journal about Afro-Latin Americans Negritud, based at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia. Burke Museum in Seattle has a copy of the English version, and the University of Pittsburgh a copy of the Spanish version of this article.
An upcoming talk at Penn State University is about the conflict caused among white women on Jamaica, who depended on traditional Black healers and midwives for their own health needs, but Obeah, a general term for the Jamaican and other English speaking Caribbean countries form of traditional medicine and religion and witchcraft was illegal after 1760 and continues to be illegal after Independence. The word Obeah in Jamaican English is probably related to the Garifuna word “Obeimaja” to be possessed by spirits, such as during a healing dance or ceremony. The Taino Arawak speaking people also lived on Jamaica, as they did on Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba, so the fact that both Garifunas and Jamaicans and other Caribbean people were often mixed indigenous and African in early periods,led to similarities in their medical and religious beliefs.For example, the Garifuna religion is similar to Convince of the Maroons of Jamaica and Garifuna sailors have said they danced dugu with the Maroons of Jamaica in the mid-twentieth century.
Among the Maya Chorti of Guatemala and Honduras, and among the Garifunas of Honduras and Belize, among the Miskito Indians and the Black English speakers of Honduras, this tension caused by the Church and the State wanting to wipe out witchcraft and pre-Christian practices related to health, are noted as reasons why many traditional healers stop practicing traditional medicine, which has resulted in the loss of knowledge of hundreds if not thousands of medicinal plant recipes. While Amazonian rainforest Indians are famous for their medicinal plants, and people who care about the rainforest in the US are probably concerned because they think we could wipe out these plants, in fact many of the breakthroughs in modern medicine related to plants came from African or African descent healers.
The drug that revolutionized mental health in the US and caused the mentally ill to be treated as opposed to just locked up was Thorazine. But the reason Thorazine was developed that an English Lord became psychotic while in Africa (schizophrenia often affects people after age 18 or 21, a good age for people to be travelling), and Western medicine had no medicine for him, so his family accepted the offer of a African healer to treat him with an African root. He got better. Thorazine was made chemically based on that plant, as opposed to the plant itself and that may be why Thorazine is reportedly a very difficult drug to tolerate. Native Americans, Miskito Indians, and Garifunas believe there are secrets about plants are grown together with other plants, about paying for plants, about how you pick and process the plant, how you give the plant, knowing the secret of the plant which usually requires prayers or being clean or sacred words, how you monitor the patient and adjust treatment, that the treatment includes talking to people and their families, that it is not just about the chemicals, and that maybe why Thorazine is not as nice an experience as the English lord had among the African healers.
Other important modern medicines from African healers include two drugs made by Ely Lilly for treating leukemia. An African healer in Madacascar told a researcher there are 18 kinds of periwinkles in Madagascar, but only these two cure cancer of the blood. The researchers thought, yeah,right, sure, but in fact they worked and medicines from these two plants were a multimillion dollar industry for Ely Lilly. If the African healer got $5 I would be surprised. Currently more than a thousand acres of land in Madagascar was given the Daewoo, the Korean company, for free, even though Madagascar is considered one of the hot spots for biological diversity because of the meeting of African and Asian/Pacific and Indian Ocean Islander plants and animals and peoples. The parent company of Daewoo, POSCO Industries, is one of the companies actively pushing for Model cities in Honduras, which are threatening the Garifunas. Daewoo is also associated with Murdoch’s companies in Austrailia, a problem spot for indigenous Black peoples also.
The discovery of serious money making drugs from rainforest plants by Ely Lilly is part of what got the World Bank and the Inter-American Bank interested in the preservation of the rainforest after the 1992 Rio de Janeiro conference on the environment, not because they wanted to help the indigenous peoples in the rainforest, but because they wanted to know what was there and what it was good for, reported an Inter-American Development Bank official. That this is also the time US companies are asking for Intellectual Property protection to be the number one priority of US government foreign policy is not unrelated issue.
Native Americans in Canada and in Mexico have been very concerned about the issue of “biopiracy” stealing indigenous traditional knowledge for the purpose of privatizing it and selling as a personal commodity, of which while drug companies are named, Monsanto the genetic engineering company of seeds is actually considered one of the worst culprits. What part of Native Americas in Mexico and in the US figured out how to cross corn native to Mexico and corn native to Maine, known genetically as “bent corn” apparently before 1,000 BC, makes corn the personal property of Monsanto, a company that did not exist the first 3000 years there was corn?
US researchers have even tried patenting blood for themselves, other non-American people’s blood, because it had antibodies in it. Now someone is trying to patent using babies’s placentas as tissue to put on burns to speed up healing in the US. Given the sacredness of everything regarding birth, including where you put the placenta and how you put it there, among traditional Latin American peoples, many of whom now live in the US, there are some real serious issues here, that at first just looked like a minor question like what are the Garifuna’s traditional medicinal practices and what is threatening their intergenerational transmission?
Some other medicinal plants known to come from Africa, and in widespread use in Latin America as medicine, include aloe vera (zabila) and coffee. The gel of the Aloe vera or zabila is generally used for treating burns in Honduras, and tourists use it to treat sunburn. It is also used to prevent hairloss.
Coffee is known to help people having bronchitis or asthma attacks, but in Honduras it is also typically used for headaches caused by being out in the sun. Garifuna midwives, like Yaya, also use strong coffee to stop hemorraging after the delivery. Coffee is known to have an effect of helping to constrict blood vessels, so that is why it often helps migraines and other headaches and that is probably why it helps hemorrhaging as well. Many Latin American women die of hemorrhaging after child birth. Are they dying for the lack of a good strong cup of coffee? One black bush doctor in Belize knew 1,000 medicinal plants,which is morethan all the medicinal plantlore for all of Europe, reported Dr. Paul House of the UNAH. Who knows what wonderful drugs we are losing because we are destroying the plants and the knowledge.