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Medicine and Herbs: An Exchange

Medicine and “herbs”: an exchange

Jonathan McKeowan


Jonno came to Paiga in January 2010. This is an extract from a longer article he has written about his time in Paiga. The text of this article has been approved for distribution on this site by Wako, the subject of this article.


I had more or less assumed that the Papuans would have traditional forms of “medicine” but I was surprised by the first concrete example of it that I encountered. While visiting a family and elderly man told us of having pain in his naval and swelling in the abdominal region. When asked what treatment (if any) he had for it, he told us that he had “Uti” and pointed with his index finger to four points in his abdominal area, to points in the crook of his elbows and at the back of his knees. I was struggling through our interpreter to comprehend what he was talking about. “They use a little spear,” he said, “with bits of broken bottle on the end to cut the skin to get rid of the dirty blood.” I wondered if he was talking about blood-letting.


Later I asked Charles, a likeable, late middle-aged villager, if he had heard of “Uti”. The next morning he presented me with a tiny bow (about 25cm long) and three arrows (“spears”) to go with it. The arrows had small pieces of broken glass bound to the ends which were about 5-8 mm in length. These he explained were shot into certain points on the body to drain out the “dirty blood” which, as I understood it, carries the sickness afflicting the body whether it be a boil, a headache, etc., - even a broken bone. All these symptoms, we were told, have a common root in the body: “dirty blood.” However, the origin of dirty blood is traditionally understood as having being introduced from an external source by a means or agency generally referred to as “poison” or “sorcery.” The tips of the spears seem designed so that they could not penetrate too deeply; just enough to produce a blood flow. Nevertheless they did not seem at all hygienic to me.


At first I was simply struck by the seeming ubiquity of such ideas about blood and the practice of blood-letting - prior, I suppose, to the technological revolution in western scientific and medical research. But I wondered if this was just the tip of the iceberg and wanted to know more about traditional medical practices and the beliefs behind them, so I asked Charles who always seemed to be quietly available. My inquiries led into talk of “sorcery”. Curious though I was, I remained, however, somewhat reticent to pry too deeply. Being new to this world I didn’t know whether such subjects were taboo in any way, or if my enquiries were likely to cause offense or seem indelicate somehow. I was curious to know whether an “offensive” kind of sorcery was still practiced in their village. I had figured - psychologising I admit - that if the belief that all illness or injury was caused by “poison” or “sorcery” existed and was in this sense a deliberate act of violence perpetrated by another individual or village, then perhaps this originated in the “same-same” logic: that if we ourselves have (at least) considered perpetrating such violence so might our neighbours. I was speculating, I know, but a part of me would have liked to test my hypothesis. Nevertheless I decided against pursuing this line because it felt somehow indecent (especially for a first-time visitor like myself) to make such sinister inquiries. But the following day Charles broached the subject with me and said that he knew two men who still practiced sorcery. He offered, if I would like, to take me to meet one of them. I decided to let the offer go as it wasn’t really the focus of what we were supposed to be doing and I didn’t want to get in over my head.


But the subject didn’t go away. Because the main focus of what we were doing in Paiga on this occasion was medical the question of traditional medicine, both its symptomatology (diagnostics) and its treatments, kept cropping up. The women working with Bronwen kept encountering the category of “Mary sick,” a set of symptoms that were generally regarded as afflictions specific to women. While I heard more accounts of “Uti” treatment which seemed to be used in parallel with modern medical treatments, limited though these were, I also heard that one of the “big men” in the village called Wako was also a practitioner of traditional “Herbs” and had made tentative arrangements to visit him in order to learn about his herbal remedies. A time was eventually made to go and visit him.


Wako’s daughter came to collect us and escorted Josca and I along the narrow, winding path that led down through gardens and hamlets and then up and up to a little house set high on the side of a mountain overlooking greater Paiga, which consists of a number of smaller hamlets scattered through the valley. When we arrived at the levelled area around Wako’s hut I took in the view for a few moments while I caught my breath. I was invited to enter and stooped down as I stepped through the low doorway into the smoky gloom. Wako, and a relative from Moresby called Wane, along with Wako’s wife were inside sitting around the typically central fireplace. Two thick bamboo tubes were in the fire and I realised that I had in fact been invited to a special breakfast. I sat down near the door so that I would have enough light to take notes by, which I explained as I took out my notebook and pen. I was introduced to Wane and Wako’s wife and was presented with a beautiful bush billum (a traditional string bag made from all natural fibre and dyes). After some preliminary small talk Wako suggested that we talk first and then eat, gesturing to the bamboo in the fire. I showed my delight at the food and agreed to his suggestion. I thanked Wako’s wife gesturing to the bamboo and then looked expectantly at Wako who proceeded to give me the following information in surprisingly ordered format. Nevertheless it was difficult at times, even with Josca interpreting for me, to clarify the exact sense of some of the things he said and the way in which he used certain terms.


Wako began by saying that there were “two types of sickness”: 1) “germs” and 2) “poison”. The former being the generic term they use to refer to that which white men had (in some vague sense) introduced; the latter being the pidgin version of their traditional term for illness. I gathered that these terms were used in a kind of generic etiological sense, that is, just as we see sickness as being caused by “germs”; they see it as being caused by “poison”. He assumed I knew all about “germs” and explained that he was just going to talk about “poison”.


Then he discussed five kinds of poison that he was able to treat. Something Wako said at the outset made me wonder if the following list was not meant to be exhaustive but was merely indicative of the kinds of things he was able to treat. He made a point of saying that he could not tell me everything because this was his livelihood. Wako explained that he was the only “Herbs” man (i.e., traditional medicine man) in Ward 6. In fact it was Wane, his next of kin, who chimed in and explained this point to me. The knowledge was more or less secret, and was only passed on to select individuals in his family. Another reason why I think this list is probably not exhaustive is the way Wako skipped over Malaria and Typhoid (see point 3 below) because he considered this superfluous information to be giving me since we don’t have these diseases in Australia. Incidentally, this also made me aware that Wako seemed to be under the impression that he was giving me “practical” information, on the understanding that I would use it either directly or indirectly to treat sick people back in Australia. (Here again I became conscious of being indebted in an economy of exchange that I didn’t really understand.) The five kinds of poison were as follows:


1)      “Kuru”, which comes from the Fore word “kuria” or “guria,” meaning “to shake”, which is one of the most obvious symptoms of a disease that is now linked scientifically to endocannibalism among Fore speakers in. For a brief description and history of “Kuru” visit and go to “Paiga Then: History” and look under the heading “Paiga and Kuru”.) Interestingly, Wako thought that Kuru could return at any time even though they hadn’t had a case of Kuru for many years. I infer from this that he is either unaware that Kuru has been linked to the practice of endocannibalism or is sceptical about this link.

2)      Tukabu” meaning “ambush” and which refers to injuries resulting from violent assault in which the assailant usually would target key points on the body such as the “brain”, the “backbone”, the “testes”, or “joints” such as the knees or elbows. Victims of this kind of “ambush” typically die within 3-7 days unless treated. The normal treatment/recovery period for an injury of this kind would be 2 – 3 weeks.

3)      “Malaria” and “Typhoid”. Wako said that there was no need for him to tell me about his cure for these as it was unnecessary since we did not have these in Australia.

4)      Wayainu” (waya meaning “woman”, inu meaning “sick”) or “Mary sick.” This included such ailments in women that presented as “continuous bleeding,” “loss of weight,” “yellow skin,” and “achy hips or pelvis”. Once again, this list was probably not exhaustive.

5)      “Poison” (which seemed in this case to be used as a more specific sub-category of the more generic “poison” category used above in Wako’s initial division). This seems to be the kind of sickness that is also linked to a distinct but related practice referred to as “sorcery”. Traditional medicine (or “herbs”) in this sense seems to be linked to sorcery in so far as “herbs” is an attempt to counter-act the effects of sorcery or poison. Thus the traditional medical practitioner must have a more or less working knowledge of sorcery in order to identify and treat the poison.


Under this fifth heading Wako identified three methods of poisoning:


1)      “Poison” as a kind of “magic” that travels “through the air” (i.e., it is effective from a distance and requires no “physical” medium of transmission.)

2)      “Poison” as a kind of voodoo. In this kind of poison the left-overs of a potential victim’s food, or the remains of something intimately connected with the victim, is obtained by stealth and then used as the “physical” or effective connection between the assailant and the victim for the purpose of inflicting harm. Such an object might be “wrapped” and then put in the fire, and then hung high in the ceiling of the assailant’s hut above the fire place where it is very smoky, and then taken far away and buried in mud. This apparently results in the person getting very sick, and suffering considerably before eventually dying.

3)      “Poison” in the ordinary sense of adding a poisonous substance to the food of a potential victim who then ingests it, gets sick and dies.


I was uncertain as to whether the general category of poison which Wako used in the first place was used to imply that all subsequent forms of sickness were believed to be the result of “sorcery” by an enemy. I would have liked to know, for example, whether all “Mary sick” was believed to be the result of “sorcery”. The impression I got was that, traditionally, this was the case, but that these beliefs are being challenged by the introduction of modern medicine such that many villagers are now unsure as to whether the different approaches compliment or compete.


I asked Wako about how the whole process of treating someone works and he explained that it begins with a preliminary consultation in which he examines the patient to determine whether or not it is a sickness he can cure. If it is, he explains his diagnosis to the family. In cases of serious injury, the patient would be brought to Wako’s house for treatment.


As I began to ask about the actual treatments he used I started to realise how potentially expansive a field I was entering. I realised that I would have to try to use specific instances in order to get at least some idea of how he would go about treating a patient. Here my lack of medical training was a real disadvantage. So I asked him about how he would typically treat a case like one where someone had been hit with a lump of wood during a fight. Wako explained that he would collect the “herbs” and then prepare a special herb concoction in bamboo. This herb concoction is prepared with a “meal” consisting of “Aviya” (the green and yellow leafy vegetable commonly eaten with meals), “Kai” (ginger), and “chicken without bones”. Thus the herbs are cooked (steamed/broiled) with the other ingredients in the green bamboo tubes over the fire.


Once the herb meal is prepared he explained that there are three steps in the treatment:


1)      Uti” spears are used to remove the “dirty blood”

2)      The herb liquid from the meal is poured directly onto the wound or affected area.

3)      The remaining herbs meal is eaten by the patient.


Thus apart from removing the dirty blood which is seen as carrying the poison (point 1), there is both an “external” (point 2) and an “internal” (point 3) treatment.


I asked Wako about the actual herbs he used and he brought out a bundle of leaves and bits of bark (some of which were stored in small pill bottles), along with his Uti bow and spears. He showed me four “herbs” and explained that these were bark obtained from four different trees:


1)      Wakara” is the name of the tree from which the most powerful and important of the four herbs is obtained. It is a special tree of which there is only one in the whole of their district. Although all four herbs “work together” Wakara is the integral herb.

2)      Maro” is the name of a tree which grows in the coffee gardens. It was described as having a “small leaf.”

3)      Avocado tree.

4)      Nagi” is the name of the fourth tree.


It is only the bark from these trees that is used in the herbal concoction.


When I asked Wako if he used different herbs for different kinds of sickness he indicated that this same set of herbs was used for all sickness except “Mary sick” which has its own special set of herbs. So I asked about the “Mary sick” herbs and Wako showed me five “Mary sick” herbs, four of which were leaves and one of which was bark, and explained:


1)      Awasa” is a plant with a maroon coloured, waxy leaf, with serrated edges that is a bit paisley shaped.

2)      Kiguwa” is a plant with small elongated leaves (about 3 – 4cm). It looks a bit like Rosemary but not thick. It’s leaves are maroon coloured on the bottom and green on top.

3)      Kamira” is a plant with a large burgundy leaf (about the size of my outspread hand) with pronounced veins. It is a lighter crimson on the underside of the leaf.

4)      Yabusu” is a large tree. It has small leaves (3cm x 1.5cm). It is a red sunburst to brown/green edges. It is also used as a brown ochre dye.

5)      Yasawa” is a very special tree which doesn’t grow in Paiga. You have to go to Karu to get this herb. The “herb” is taken from the bark of this tree. This is the main herb in the concoction. The preceding herbs are all activators of this herb’s power. It is also used as a dye for billums. Wako told me that the brown ochre dye used in the billum that was given to me was taken from the fruit and bark of this tree.


These five herbs are mixed in a dish with grated green banana. Then they are put into bamboo tubes and cooked. When they are cooked they are put in a dish for the sick person to eat. Once again there is a procedure for treating “Mary sick”:


1)      First of all the herbs are applied to the skin of the affected area.

2)      Next “Uti” is shot into the back of the lower calf muscle area to drain out the “dirty blood” from the body.

3)      Then the meal is given to the patient to eat.


Finally, Wako explained that there are specific herbs for men and women. One cannot be used for the other, he said, or the medicine will “bounce back”. I did not ask at the time but I wondered later whether all sickness that women suffered was referred to as “Mary sick” or whether there were some sicknesses that were recognisably common to both sexes. The impression I got from Wako was that there was a fundamental difference between men and women which required different herbal treatments. I could be mistaken but he seemed to be saying that even if both a man and a woman presented with identical head wounds, for instance, they would be treated with different herbal remedies. Furthermore there only seemed to be two basic kinds of herbal remedy (one for men and one for women) and that these were applied in more or less the same way for all illness or injury with minor variations. I am not sure, however, how Wako would treat an open fracture for example.


I realised after I had left Wako’s house that he had not mentioned the use of the “Kusa” leaf, and I had forgotten to ask him about it. However I suspect that this large nettle-like leaf is something that everyone more or less self-medicates with in much the same way that Westerners would with Paracetamol. It is used as a general pain killer for almost any kind of pain imaginable. It is applied by slapping it directly onto the skin of the affected area – even the forehead for headaches. After a brief moment in which there is seemingly no effect there follows a period of intense stinging which gradually fades along with the original pain it was trying to treat. I assume that the reason Wako didn’t mention it is that it is not a specialised herbal remedy.


The use of “Uti” was not discussed in a very specific way with Wako. Although he indicated that it was integral to his herbal treatment. A number of people I met who weren’t “Herbs” men possessed an “Uti” bow and spears and seemed to have some specific knowledge of how to use it. It seemed to be the next step to take if the “Kusa” leaf proved ineffective. (Visiting Wako or the Clinic seemed to be the thing to do only if the sickness proved more serious still.) However, I did get some indications from various sources including Wako as to where on the body the Uti spears were applied in various cases. The most common sites of application were the crook of the arm where the veins are visible (for shoulder pain), the knees, the lower calf muscle, the ankles, and the veins between the metatarsils (for leg, knee, or ankle pain), the abdominal region (for stomach pain or swelling) or lower back (for thoracic back pain), but also the head (if the “Kusa” leaf proved ineffective for headache). I also got the impression that a site around or below the affected area was usually selected for “Uti”. I wondered if there was a gravitational element in the “draining” of the “dirty blood”.


In conclusion, I would add that, despite Wako’s claim to be the only “Herbs” man in Ward 6, and even though he demonstrated an ability to treat certain kinds of “Mary sick”, I became aware that there were some aspects of pregnancy and the birth process that men are strictly not allowed to participate in or even to go near.