Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Power of Plants

By: Kelsey Sumner

While traveling, I have always been in a state of wonder. Whenever I go to another country, I am in awe by the different cultural practices, traditions, and ceremonies. My first year at Duke University, every freshman read Ann Patchett's State of Wonder, a novel detailing the life of a researcher investigating the discovery of a new antimalarial and fertility compound in the Amazon. She flies
to Brazil to see the drug first-hand and finds it comes from tree bark in an indigenous community. The researcher quickly becomes wrapped up in the community's lifestyle, learning some of their medicinal methods. Now, visiting the Ngöbe indigenous communities in Costa Rica, I cannot help but compare the ideals I'm learning to the ones in State of Wonder. Both the fictitious indigenous Brazilian tribe and the Ngöbe in La Casona, Costa Rica exemplify the importance of traditional
medicine in the world today.
Traditional medicine can help treat a variety of diseases and conditions using plants found in nature. Wild plants are a vital part of more than sixty-five percent of the global population's primary
form of health care, so should be taken into account in Western medicine (Farnsworth et al.). For example, the Bribri community in Talamanca, Costa Rica, frequently chew on Hombre Grande, a green leafy plant, because it is a natural insect repellent and antimalarial. Traditional medicinal methods can also relieve symptoms for illnesses Western medicine cannot cure, such as Diabetes, making traditional medicine an important part of the medical community. OTS's global health course recently visited the Ngöbe indigenous community to learn the different ways traditional medicine
is still practiced in La Casona. Within minutes of arriving, we quickly realized the local EBAIS has developed treatment options with the Ngöbe instead of for them. We first saw how CCSS has incorporated local customs into healthcare by visiting the new EBAIS. The EBAIS was built with the help of Ngöbe designers, complete with octagonal buildings and a room for traditional healers. We then spoke with the medicinal healer as well as saw disease prevention posters with pictures drawn by local Ngöbe artists. A midwife later outlined the ways maternal and infant mortality have improved in the area through the CCSS training programs and emergency kits for the midwives.
Through these changes, the local EBAIS has made Western health options more appealing and accessible to the indigenous community while at the same time preserving traditional healing methods. Visiting the Ngöbe community emphasized the power plants can hold in a community, especially in traditional medicine. Never before had I realized how much cultural importance plants can carry. At the end of State of Wonder, the researcher decides she cannot develop a drug from the tree bark, because pharmaceutical companies would then claim the tree grove. The indigenous community could then no longer perform a special ceremony with the trees and a part of their culture
would be destroyed. The visit to the Ngöbe community taught me how traditional medicine is not merely seen as a way to treat patients, but a way of life full of a community's beliefs and ideals.
Traditional medicine and its knowledge of plants needs to be maintained, if not for its usefulness to mankind but also for its preservation of a culture.
Works Cited: Farnsworth NR, Akerele O, Bingel AS, Soejarto DD, Guo Z. 1985. Medicinal plants in therapy. Bull WHO 63:965-981.

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