Students participating in IPD’s Public Health and Development program spent a week traveling along the Garden Route, a scenic area of coastal South Africa. The week focused on the worldviews of health, and students visited various locales to get a thorough understanding of South African traditional medicine.
Our first day on the Garden Route was spent in an area called George. At the Garden Route Botanical Gardens, we were joined by Richard, a traditional healer who works in the surrounding area.
Traditional healing is one of the medicinal practices in South Africa. In 2008, a study estimated 190,000 traditional practitioners in the country, who treat a broad variety of medical ailments. As students of public health during our time in South Africa, it was essential for us to spend time investigating the utilization of traditional practices, in an attempt to create a more broad understanding of health systems.
Richard took us through the central part of the garden, a manmade mound with a winding path that leads to the top. The hill is sectioned into triangular patches, each home to a different plant that Richard is intimately familiar with. The sections are separated by fences of wild garlic (Tulbaghia violacea). The plant is known for its immune stimulatory properties, he tells us. A member of the Alliaceae family, crushed wild garlic fights a wide variety of infections. Richard tells us of a time he experimented with the herb – when left on a surface for a few hours, the garlic killed off the ring of surrounding microbes within a few hours. At this, the explanation of the experiment ends – Richard has a way of telling stories that is definitive, yet somewhat mysterious. We never know the details of his stories, only the conclusive results. He speaks in an almost whisper, works tumbling out one after another in eloquently accented English.
When we first met him, Richard introduced himself in few words, leaving breaks in his history as a healer but portraying an impressive resume nonetheless. Later, as we sit atop the mound on decorative benches, Richard tells us how he defines his role as a healer. “Healers must know what’s wrong with someone by looking into their eyes,” he tells us. His knowledge of African remedies has been passed down from generation to generation, and will continue to do so; his son sits by his side throughout our lecture, training to continue in his father’s footsteps on day.
Indeed, Richard knows a lot about a lot of plants. Each triangle on the mound is described in varying detail. For some, we get just a name and are told to move on. Others we hear of various uses, anecdotes from Richard’s own practice, and even personal moments from Richard’s life. Such is the case when we reach the triangle where African Wormwood (Artemesia afra) grows. Richard is currently using the plant for chest pains, he tells us, utilizing the plant’s ability to eliminate infections of the chest. According to a pamphlet released by the South African Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, “A afra is one of the medicinal plants used most widely and effectively by people of all cultures in South Africa.” In addition to the aforementioned use, the leaves of the plant can be used to stop nosebleeds or reduce the amount of sugar in someone’s blood.
In this manner, Richard takes us around the mound, sharing the uses of the Buxus plant, Aloe barberae, the African potato, and many others. He deftly weaves together the practical uses of each herb with the wisdom of many years treating patients. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of us, as students who have been raised in a world of modern medicine, is Richard’s explanations of how and why his traditional medicine is successful. He is well aware of his audience and our potential for skepticism when learning a new method of medicine. “I cannot say things and expect you to believe me without being scientific,” he says, “but only the healer needs to believe.” The success will follow, we’re told, if the healer is truly attuned to the needs of his patient.
The utilization of the ancient wisdom passed down to him is only a shred of Richard’s wisdom, as we learned over the few hours we spent with him. Beyond his deep knowledge of medicinal plants in South Africa, he shared with us tidbits about his understanding of life as a whole. Along with the lectures from our professors about the integration of traditional beliefs with medicinal practices, Richard is the perfect individual to round out of lessons about African traditional medicine. It is hard not to be entranced by the way he moves around the garden, gathering leaves from plants here and there, learning an entirely new perspective on medicine in the course of an afternoon. Many of us were fascinated by Richard’s speech, but for different reasons. In many cases, the medical aspects of his livelihood were striking. For others, it was the lifestyle that Richard evoked that got them thinking. For me, it was a combination of both, along with a deep appreciation of his perspective on life.
“Life is a terminal illness,” he told us. “You are born just so you can die. The question is what you do with your life.”