Healing and Medicine: Healing and Medicine in the African Diaspora

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For more than a century, African-based religions in the Americas have been dismissed as mere superstition or titillating witchcraft. The racism that feeds such caricatures has endured into the twenty-first century even though these religions are now neither rare nor out of reach. Palo Monte, Santería, Vodou, and Rastafarianism are likely to be found in every sizeable city in Europe and the United Statesas are the variety of contemporary religious practices known as Yoruba revival. Traditions such as Umbanda, Candomblé, and Shango may be scarcer, but they also have some international presence.

African-based religions are eclectic by default and in ways that emphasize both their developmental history and their innate flexibility, which has made it possible for them to survive. Broad African perspectives dominate in the diverse group of religions born from chattel slavery, but they also have absorbed South American and Caribbean autochthonous religious practices. Colonial Christianity has also had a substantial influence on African diaspora religions. Without giving up their primary focus on African-based religion, most contemporary followers of Vodou or Santeríawhether in Haiti, Cuba, or New York Citypublicly identify themselves as Christians. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, in both the United States and the Caribbean, attendance at Catholic churches is part of the ritual life of an initiate of Santería or Vodou.

African-based religions were shaped by two powerful forces: the cruel and dehumanizing social structures that characterized transatlantic slavery and the creative responses of the enslaved who mustered to the cause resistance, flexibility, humor, strength, and endurance.

Healing with Leaves

Virtually all African-based religions emanating from South America and the Caribbean are focused on healing. These religious practices present a more diverse interpretation of illness and well-being than Western allopathic medicine provides. A leader/healer in Vodou, Candomblé, Umbanda, Santería, or Palo Monte is expected to function in diverse ways, including as a stand-in parent, a psychologist, a social worker, a priest, and, very likely, an herbal doctor. All African diaspora priests are not equally educated about medicinal plants; however, those with skills in healing commonly use leaves in the curative process in one form or another.

Healing with leaves is a common theme among African diaspora religions. Herbs, most often referred to as leaves, can be a curative agent in many ways, varying from being the source of medicinal tea to serving as an important ingredient in spiritual charms or talismans. Sacred leaves are also brushed across the human body in an act of spiritual cleansing or exorcism. They can also be kneaded in water and applied to the body as a poultice. In treating something like a headache, whole leaves fresh from the bush can be laid on the forehead and secured with a scarf. In Brazil, herbal baths are administered by the mae de santo (mother of the saints) or the pai de santo (father of the saints), whereas in Jersey City, New Jersey, santeros administer similar baths to those awaiting initiation, and in Cuba the casa de santo (house of the spirit) is spiritually cleaned by sprinkling the floor with a leaf infusion, heavy with the perfume of basil. A carefully constructed series of cleansing baths followed by strengthening baths, made from leaf infusions and other ingredients such as powders, perfumes, fruits and liquors, is as likely to be prescribed for trouble in the workplace as it is for a disease. All problemsphysical, spiritual or magicalcan profit from herbal treatment.

Diagnosis and the Theory of Parallel Causalities

Diaspora priests offer healing to clients for a wide range of ailments and their causes, including professional, social, spiritual, amorous, monetary, familial, or even political. As in allopathic healing, curing begins with diagnosis and, in the African diaspora, diagnosis comes through divination. Tossing cowrie shells, gazing into water-filled glasses or burning candles, going into possession, and card reading are among African diaspora divining techniques. African diaspora divination is more of a discerning mechanism than a crystal ball, and although divination techniques are diverse, they usually work on a theory of parallel causalities. Vodou card reading provides an example: A client who goes to a Haitian manbo (priestess) for a card reading will not hear a prediction of the future. Instead the manbo will engage the client in a series of questions and answers designed to unlock the secrets of the present and reveal important things in the past that have been forgotten. The manbo will lay out the cards twiceonce to determine what is happening among the living and a second time to see if spirits or ancestors are involved. In most traditions a particular physical ailment has no connection to a specific spiritual problem. Therefore, a connection between, for example, the inability to sleep and a troubled ancestor would emerge only through the divination process.

Once a problem is revealed, treatment will proceed on both human and spiritual levels. For insomnia, the manbo might suggest an herbal tea, an over-the-counter sleeping pill, or even a trip to a medical doctor. Most healers in the African diaspora tradition have accepted the skills and powers of Western allopathic medicine, and they counsel their clients to take advantage of the help a medical doctor can provide. For the manbo, the spiritual connection revealed in divination amounts to a second layer of causality. For her, this dimension of the client's problem is more seriousand needs more attentionthan the physical problem. The manbo 's prescriptions for healing the spiritual level of the problem might include such things as wanga (a charm designed to change a dysfunctional relationship), herbal baths, and even elaborate rituals such as a Catholic Mass for the dead to honor an unhappy ancestor. A strong sense of family lingers in African diaspora healing practices. It is not unusual for a client to be told that the cause of the problem is an event in the family that happened before he or she was born.

Physical ailments are sometimes diagnosed as messages from the spirits. This genre of diagnosis that is familiar to almost every individual in the African diaspora. By tracing an illness or a social problem along parallel causal paths through the land of the living and the land of spirits, that problem is firmly located in a relational connection rather than in an individual person. Guilt is thus diffused and community ties are reinforced through the palliative rituals prescribed by the healer. The client's sense of helplessness is abated, and, most important, suffering is given meaning. It is common for a religious leader to be called to his or her healing vocation through a manifestation of prolonged physical illness. The authority of any diagnosis that includes the intervention of the spirits is assured when the illness at issue is one that Western medicine can neither diagnose nor cure.

Heating Things Up: Raising Ashe

African diaspora religions configure the world as a web of relationships connecting the living, the ancestors, and the spirits. Each group has a role to play and each group needs the other two, thus the exchanges among them are ideally kept in an active balance, one that is simultaneously dynamic and equilibrating. Ashe, a common Yoruba term in Santería and Candomblé (it has similar meaning in other African diaspora religious traditions) can be translated as vital energy or divine energy. Ashe flows through the web connecting the living, the dead, and the spirits, thus effecting healing. Ashe is present in people and can raised by many meansespecially spirited dancing and drumming. In Haitian Vodou, it is said that no spirits will come and possess the vodouisants unless the gathered group does not first echofe the ritual event itself. Accordingly, every ceremony becomes a context for community healing. Ashe is also in the juices of healing leaves and the blood of sacrificial animals. Healing through leaves and blood sacrifice necessarily includes reciprocity with plants and animals. Thus, the person who kills an animal may first offer it a bit of food. If the animal agrees to eat, it agrees to be sacrificed. In a similar way, when the chicken, goat, cow or pig has been killed, priests pour libations on its body in exchange for the sacrifice, much as "leaf doctors" leave a few coins on the spot where they collect their healing leaves.

Making Wanga

African diaspora healers tend to extrude the problems at hand. Healers make models of troubled relationships to "work" with them. For example, an unfaithful husband is made manifest through a male cloth doll. The doll may be stuffed with leaves, powders, coins and, most likely, a piece of paper bearing the name of the offending husband. The work then begins. A length of copper wire is used to tie the husband's image into a doll-sized chair. A padlock secures the wire. The wife is given the key and instructed to throw it away where no one, including herself, will ever find it. This is called making a wanga, a somewhat generic term for charms and talismans in Caribbean culture. The manufacture of the charm articulates and activates the human situation, thus opening the possibility of change. The next step, "working the wanga ", brings the spirits into the process. The doll, bound in his chair, is situated to face a mirror. Between the mirror and the doll, an oil lamp burns twenty-four hours a day. The unhappy wife feeds the wick and instructs the spirits to make her husband see himself clearly and thus see how much damage he is doing to his family. She works the wanga two or three times a day. Working the wanga is one way to heat things up, that is, to raise ashe.

There is a rich repertoire of charms in the African diaspora. Protective charms designed to secure a house are common. They are either buried in the yard or hung in the house rafters. One version of what Vodou practitioners call a gad (guard) is an herbal mixture placed under the skin of the upper arm. This particular charm functions as a look-out that warns the person of immanent dangers by inducing a tremor in the arm. Jamaicans talk about the activation of a malevolent charm as "planting" something. Charms of that sort are thought to be capable of remaining maliciously potent for generations. By contrast, there are many charms known in the African diaspora that anyone can make in a minute without the help of a healer, and most are not expected to function beyond the immediate situation. For example, small packets of meaningful leaves in the shoes can "heat up" in the very act of walking. This is yet another way of activating the ashe in leaves. About to face a judge, the accused may place honey on his tongue before leaving the house, and once in court, he may memorize the names of the judge and the lawyers, to be used for another sort of wanga.

Poisons that Heal

A few contemporary African diaspora healers with extensive botanical knowledge may still know how to administer a variety of poisons. Poisoning techniques have been passed down from healer to healer for generations. By the turn of the twenty-first century, these recipes had become quaint memories, but during the time of the slave colonies, poisoning was a powerful weapon, one of the few that slaves had. It was a seriousalthough exaggerated and politicizedissue throughout the colonial era. When slaves actually used it as an act of resistance, they could and did throw the white population into a headlong panic, which often produced hideous punishments. Gifted healers among the slaves were known to be hanged, shot, and even burned alivesome for no reason other than their suspicious herbal knowledge. It is likely that during the period of chattel slavery most slaves who knew about leaves were likely to know how to concoct poisons. Most did nothing with these recipes. Perhaps, those who did thought of their use as a continuation of a spirit-fueled healing tradition. When slavery is the context and survival is at stake, poisoning could well be seen as a community healing agent.

It is certain that the white colonial population did not think of poisoning by slaves as a positive contribution to the community. During the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries, when the enslaved people laboring in Haiti began their uniquely successful bid for freedom, the colonial population in the Caribbean was already ill at ease in the company of so many angry black men and women. Fear, hatred, and ignorance among the white colonial population fueled the fires of suspicion. Whites had little understanding of African diaspora religious practices. They passed laws that related the making of healing charms with the manufacture of poisons. At times, the punishment for making wanga was death. Ironically, the antisuperstition laws in place before the Haitian Revolution remained after liberation; however, in the aftermath of the revolution, the political valence of laws against the making of wanga changed: Legislation that resulted from a witch-hunt for poisoners in colonial Haiti was co-opted by politicians who wanted Haiti to appear to the larger world as a "civilized" Catholic country.

See Also

African American Religions, overview article; African Religions, overview article; Syncretism.


Rachel Harding, A Refuge in Thunder: Candomblé and Alternative Spaces of Blackness (Bloomington, Ind., 2000), when partnered with Robert A. Voeks, Sacred Leaves of Candomblé: African Magic, Medicine and Religion in Brazil (Austin, Tex., 1997), provides a full portrait of healing in Brazilian Candomblé. Morton Marks, "Exploring el Monte: Ethnobotony and the Cuban Science of the Concrete," in En torno a Lydia Cabrera, by Isabel Castellanos and edited by Josefina Inclan (Miami, 1987) is a classic article on religious plants and their classification. Wade Davis's controversial book, Passage of Darkness (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1988), explores Haitian Vodou ritual usages of poison and particularly poisoning through zombification as an act of social justice.

Karen McCarthy Brown (2005)

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Healing and Medicine: Healing and Medicine in the African Diaspora

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Healing and Medicine: Healing and Medicine in the African Diaspora