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#3339: OZARKIAN AND HAITIAN FOLK MEDICINE: by Bonnie Thomas-Stevenson
OZARKIAN AND HAITIAN FOLK MEDICINE
Webster University Student
When first beginning to study Haiti, I was intrigued to learn that
leaf-doctoring, or herbal cures, are an integral part of many Haitians'
health care regimens. Since Haitians have very limited access to the
attentions of doctors and modern medicine when ill, their reliance on
leaf-doctoring is essential to remedying their sicknesses and maintaining
a state of good health. My own interest in herbal healing dates back
twenty years when I moved to a rural area in the Ozarks and had occasion
to meet local people who gathered herbs and used them to treat various
ailments. By listening to them, going along into the woods when they
gathered and doing reading on my own, I too began to gather and use
The Haitian herbalist and her Ozark counterpart share a similarity: they
both gather and use herbs because of necessity. Ozark people are surely
not as impoverished as Haitians and they have better access to doctors
and hospitals, but the majority of improvements to this area of Missouri
have come within the past fifty years, and before that time, an
old-fashioned way of curing one's ills was the tradition. Even though
the Haitian and the Ozarkian know that "modern medicine" exists and is
practiced by doctors located an automobile or donkey ride away, the old
herbal beliefs don't die away. They are persistent. To the Haitian,
these beliefs are inexorably woven in with Voodoo, serving the loa and
reliance on the local docteur feille.
The rural Missourian who uses herbs does so out of an unwillingness to
give up a part of her heritage. It would seem that to Haitian or
Ozarkian, herbs are a comfort: they keep one grounded in the past and
more importantly, they can be effective and inexpensive cures.
After realizing that a similarity existed between Haiti and mid-western
America in terms of people gathering and using herbs, I wanted to
discover if the two countries shared any common herbal remedies. I was
fortunate to have three solid sources of information on herbs in Haiti:
Laguerre's Afro-Caribbean Folk Medicine, Colon's Traditional Use of
Medicinal Plants in the Province of Pedernales, Santo Domingo, and
Jordan's Voodoo Medicine. I used Kloss's Back to Eden and Santillo's
Natural Healing with Herbs for my American source books. What I found was
that even though Haiti has many native tropical plants that are used
medicinally, quite a few of the same medicinal plants grow there that do
in the Ozarks. I have chosen eight that are used both in Haiti and the
Ozarks to describe and comment on.
When a person thinks of sarsaparilla, what most often comes to mind is
probably an old-fashioned sudsy drink not unlike root beer. But
sarsaparilla is a root that is used medicinally both in Haiti and the
Ozarks. It is known in both locales as a blood purifier or that which
promotes a cleaning action of the liver, kidneys, spleen and bowels. But
in Haiti, the purifying qualities of sarsaparilla are held to be more
important because of the emphasis Haitians place on the role of blood in
the body. (Laguerre, 68) By a mental process Laguerre terms cognitive
mapping, Haitians seem to have a highly developed instinctual sense of
their bodies, their circulatory systems particularly. Besides the
instinctual, the blood is watched by looking into the eyes, checking the
fingernails, behind one's ears and through skin eruptions and bleeding.
They observe nuances in the condition of their blood that are almost
unheard of in white Anglo folk pharmacopoeia. Of concern to Haitians are
the coloration, volume, quantity, directionality, temperature and purity
of their blood. If they or their leaf doctor sense that any of these
factors are out of balance in their body, they dose themselves with an
decoction (tea) of sarsaparilla root. In the Ozarks sarsaparilla tea is
also widely used for its purifying properties.
Another blood purifier that is a very common remedy both in Ozarkia and
Haiti, is catnip or catmint. Anyone who has seen a cat lolling around
blissfully on a pile of catnip knows that this herb can produce a
Especially dominant are the soothing effects it is known to have on small
infants. Since catnip is a very mild herb for humans, it is safe to give
to babies in tea form. Haitians believe that giving catnip tea to
infants will clarify impurities in their blood. (Laguerre, 68) In the
Ozarks catnip tea administered to babies quiets colic and can even be
used to stop convulsions. More emphasis is given, though to its calming
and sedative effects than its purifying. (Kloss, 215) In Jordan's
research on Voodoo medicine, he places more emphasis, however, on the
calming properties of catnip, rather than purative. (Jordan, 726)
Nonetheless, catnip is such a good all-purpose herb it is no surprise
that it shares equal popularity in Haiti as it does in the hill country
of Missouri and Arkansas. Mints such as catnip are widely used both in
Haiti and America. There are many varieties such as peppermint,
spearmint, lemonmint and horsemint. All of the mints have the effect of
soothing indigestion and quieting nausea. In Michel Laguerre's book he
tells of a Haitian woman who makes herself ill by eating the head of a
turkey. Her laments were set to music:
"Sam, bring me some mint!
Make Catnip up an' sage tea!
I goes an' gets her all them things
But she throw 'em back up to me." (Laguerre, 48)
Needless to say, mint teas are the first to be administered if someone
complains of stomach upset in Haiti or Ozarkia.
Quite unlike the soothing properties of the mints are the herbs that are
known for their tonic or stimulating effects. One that I ran across in my
research that is very interesting and pertinent to this subject is
quassia, or bitterwood. It is named in honor of its discover, Quassia
the Surinam slave. Quassia was thought to have been a leaf healer in
Surinam before being brought to Haiti. He deduced that the bark and wood
of the simarouba excelsa plant were an excellent tonic and febrifuge
(that which acts to expel intestinal worms from the system). Somehow,
this knowledge was transmitted to slaves in America and they began
treating themselves with quassia, also. It became quite a popular cure
in the rural Southern states and its efficacy was even employed by the
white slave owners and their families who needed a thorough worming.
(Kloss, 300; Laguerre, 30)
Another excellent febrifuge used both in Haiti and the Ozarks is senna.
An infusion (tea) of senna is given to expel worms, reduce biliousness
(belching and indigestion), and as an all-purpose laxative (Kloss, 312;
Santillo, 175). Senna is the main ingredient in many modern day American
laxatives. But in Haiti, where worms are a more prevalent problem among
the population, senna is gathered and used for its febrifuge properties.
The last group of herbs I would like to comment on are three that could
be called "female herbs". Before the advent of modern medicine, women
had to rely on herbal cures for a variety of ailments and symptoms
associated with their reproductive symptoms. Down through the ages women
have had to deal with menstrual cramps, excessive bleeding, water
retention and unwanted pregnancy, just to name a few. While most women
in America go to licensed medical doctors to find relief for
gynecological problems, the vast majority of Haitian women cannot avail
themselves of expert medical care. Some Ozark women do not choose to
either. Therefore, herbs are the medicine of choice and necessity. In
my research, I discovered three herbs that are used for female problems
both in Haiti and Ozarkia. Red sage is an herb found in both locales and
is known to be an emmenagogue, or that which promotes menstrual flow
(Kloss, 308; Laguerre, 94; Colon, 161). I might add though, that there
is a nebulous line between what constitutes an emmenogogue or
abortifacient, but the desired result is the instigation of bleeding.
Another emmenagogue employed in both Haiti and the Ozarks is vervain.
Kloss describes it as "good in all female troubles, will increase
menstrual flow much better than quinine for the purposes for which
quinine is used" (323). Here Kloss seems to be hinting in his 1939
publication that vervain can be used to cause abortion. Quinine has quite
a reputation for being used in the past to induce abortion. Jordan
confirms these abortifacient qualities in his work, Voodoo Medicine. But
quinine is a chemical salt that can cause violent reactions, unlike
gentle verbena. William Seabrook's work The Magic Island also cites the
usage of verbena in women who are in labor (Seabrook 327). Seabrook
claimed it was called "pains cutter" in rural Haiti.
Douching with a decoction made from oak bark is another female remedy
found in both Haiti and the Ozarks (Jordan, 735; Kloss, 171). It is used
for general hygiene and curing excessive discharges.
While I was able to match several Haitian herbs with American
counterparts, I was a little disappointed that I could find no mention of
the "biggies" of American herbal pharmacoepeia in Caribbean plant
botany. Specifically, I was looking for ginseng and goldenseal, both
highly sought for their curative properties. I think the reason I was
unable to find any mention of them in Haiti was because of the complete
dissimilarity in climate. Haiti is tropical and ginseng and goldenseal
need cool, shady forest slopes to grow in. They both grow well in Ozark
soil which contains a lot of limestone sediment.
The final question that I wanted to probe was some sort of linkage
between the two cultures of Haiti and America that might account for the
similarities I found in treatment methods. I soon learned however that
Caribbean folk medicine cannot be studied without comparing it to
African-American practices. Because of the importation of workers for
plantation slavery, a vast body of knowledge departed Africa for the New
World. Along with the knowledge some of the slaves were able to bring a
few plants. Today we have black-eyed peas, sesame seeds and peanuts in
the Americas because slaves brought them along on the middle passage.
They brought plants and they brought their collective memories. I
surmise that Quassia the Surinam had seen a plant similar to bitterwood
in Africa. He remembered and was able to impart that knowledge when he
arrived in the Caribbean. All of the slaves traded their expertise in
healing because of the plantation milieu and dire necessity in staying
alive. The European slave owners were not without their healing
knowledge, too. Therefore, a medical syncretism of sorts must have
occurred. Knowledge, like slaves, was traded back and forth from slave
to owner, owner to slave, Haiti to America, America to Haiti. Throw in
the extra cultural factor of what the Amer-Indians knew and imparted, and
what emerges is a wide body of knowledge that serves a very useful, if
not vital function. And it is precisely that useful function and the
needs it fulfils that keep herbal healing alive and well in both Haiti
and the Ozarks.
Colon, Sandra Hernandez. The Traditional Use of Medicinal Plants and
Herbs in the Province of
Pedernales, Santo Domingo, in Ethnomedicine 4: 139-166, 1976.
Jordan, Wilbert C. "Voodoo Medicine", in Textbook of Black Related
Diseases. Ed. Richard Allen
Williams. New York: McGraw-Hill, pp. 715-738, 1975.
Kloss, Jethro. Back to Eden, 1939. Loma Linda, CA: Back to Eden Books, 1987.
Laguerre, Michel S. Afro-Caribbean Folk Medicine, S. Hadley, Mass:
Bergin & Garvey, 1987.
Santillo, Humbart. Natural Healing with Herbs, Prescott Valley, AZ: Hohm
Seabrook, William B., The Magic Island, 1929. New York: Paragon, 1989.