Alternative medicine has a very long tradition in Belize due to its location as the seat of the ancient Maya Civilization. 2012 has brought a great deal of attention to the Maya culture and their ancient calendars. Traditional medicine of the Maya defines their culture as much as their art, astronomy or mathematics.
A traditional medicine system is the patrimony of a nation and its people. Maya traditional healing dates back to perhaps 5,000 years, but was nearly destroyed by the Spanish Conquest of the 15th century. The Conquistadores saw native healers as a detriment to mass conversion to Christianity. Thus all forms of traditional healing became erroneously associated with witchcraft and were outlawed by the Spaniards. Since then, it has been a constant struggle for true healers to overcome the stigma of witchcraft.
This country, known to the ancient Maya as Ulumil Kutz or the Land of the Turkey and the Deer fared a bit better than in other parts of Central America because here the Spaniards found no gold or silver. The English baymen needed the bush doctors, bone setters, and snake doctors to work in the chicle, rubber and mahogany camps patching up their workers and even midwives to deliver babies.
What is the definition of traditional medicine?
The World Health Organisation has defined traditional medicine as a system of health care that has ancient roots, ancestral bonds, trained healers and may include spiritual healing with prayers, ceremonies and sacred objects.
A traditional healer is a primary health care practitioner usually trained by apprenticeship with a knowledgeable elder. They use plants in many forms such as herbal teas, herbal baths, salves, powders and ointments. They may be men or women. Traditional healers often include prayer and spiritual healing to address the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of their clients.
For thirty years, my mission as an alternative physician and herbalist has been to promote, to preserve and to record the knowledge of traditional healers in Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. I have enjoyed personal relationships with dozens of these humble and noble people. Through these relationships, I have found that the traditional healer has a unique personality. Traditional healers care more for the welfare of others than they do their own.
Why do people seek assistance from alternative medicine?
For many the distance to health care clinics is too far and too expensive to travel to, especially if you are sick. Many cannot afford the cost of a physician’s consultation and the prescriptions which can run into hundreds of dollars. There are not sufficient resources in the country to have a health clinic in every village.
Many people have a cultural belief and preference for ancestral ways and believe that natural healing must be better than synthetic drugs. Traditional healers understand a harsh socio-economic situation and are not judgmental about poverty or lack of education. Traditional Healers are often highly respected and experienced with a long track record of success that draws people to them. Often modern medicine is not successful, thus people seek out alternative medical care in Belize.
Practitioners of alternative medicine learn by apprenticeship, through oral transition and hands-on lessons from elders. Most started collecting medicinal plants for parents or grandparents when they were children. Don Tomas Green would have said “I put it all in my head and kept it there.”
We learn by observation and experience such as taste and smell, allspice for gas, oregano in food, cough goes away
Is Alternative Medicine relevant to our times?
Scientists estimate that at least 25% of all our prescription drugs have come from substances discovered in plants. At a recent World Health Organization congress on Traditional Medicine, Dr. Margaret Chan of China made the following statement:
“The time is right to view traditional medicine as a precious resource. It needs to be respected and supported as a valuable source of leads for therapeutic advances and the discovery of new classes of drugs.”
Some of the most famous plant-based drugs are aspirin from the bark of the Willow Tree used by Native North Americans, the sedative Atropine from the belladonna – Italian women learned that they could put eye drops of the white flower into their eyes to dilate pupils to look alluring – thus the name, Bella Donna in Belize known as Dama de la Noche, Bell Flower and Florifundio,
Cortisone used for rheumatism and arthritis was synthesized from a substance in the Mexican Wild Yam a plant that is abundant in Belize , it is known as White China Root and Old Man’s Beard.
Quinine for malaria came from the bark of the Cinchona Tree. A Jesuit Priest in the 1800’s was first treated by Indians of the Amazon for malaria.
Vincristine, to treat diabetes and Hodgkins Lymphoma, was synthesized from the rosy periwinkle.
Traditional medicine plays a vital role in primary health care
Through forums such as this one we put the spotlight on the Maya healers, their personal stories and their favorite plants. We can show that traditional medicine plays a vital role in primary health care in Belize. When you meet the healers and the apprentices you will see that traditional medicine in Belize is still alive and well today. Through our work we hope to gain some insight into Maya Medicine and to learn about the plants used in bush medicine of the Maya.
- From a lecture delivered by Dr. Rosita Arvigo at the Traditional Healers Forum in Belize.
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