This Norwalk couple currently lives in northern Africa. While befriending the people there, they are teaching English and training others to teach English. He also helps the locals drill wells in search of water. We are not naming the two for security reasons. They are partially funded by the Geotrac Foundation. This is the fourth in a series of articles about their lives in Africa.
Chicken soup for a cold. Peppermint tea for an upset stomach. Honey in tea for a sore throat. Flat ginger ale for nausea. Or Grammy Nadine’s specialty: tea and whiskey.
Everyone has at least two cents to give when it comes to illness and home remedies. Some have more than two cents to add, like our dear friends who have an essential oil for every possible calamity.
I personally can attest to the fact that cold, stale ginger ale helps a nauseous stomach calm down. I have a friend whose obsession with Nyquil when he’s sick can probably be traced back to early doses of whiskey at his Grammy Nadine’s house. What about a warm Coke, taken as fast as possible, to help relieve menstrual cramps? Or how about fresh lime juice and garlic for a fever, or for diarrhea?
What home remedies do the people of the Horn of Africa promote and why? How do they approach healing — with penicillin or local plants?
Recently I stumbled upon “Diagon Alley” in our city here. (For those who aren’t familiar with Diagon Alley, it’s the area in the fiction series Harry Potter where magical items are purchased.) As I entered a side street of the main market in town, I came upon the first group of ladies who didn’t yell, “Madame, Madame!” My curiosity was piqued. What were they selling? I recognized several items that are frequently used for amulets (often used to protect people, especially newborns, from evil spirits) but couldn’t name any of the spices or plants they were selling. Later, when I returned, I asked the ladies about their wares and bought about ten cents worth of each item. I wish I had known how badly one remedy was going to stink up my house before I bought it (no wonder they say it drives the evil spirits away).
When I arrived home with all my purchases, I pursued researching each item in interviews with neighbors and friends. Although some of my sources asked people more knowledgeable (mainly their grandmothers), most weren’t extremely familiar with the folk medicines—they just use them as their mothers or the local religious men tell them.
Like many of our Western home remedies, the plants and spices sold by the Diagon Alley ladies are multi-purpose. Some are used for strictly for food; others are spices (like ginger) that are good for food and medicinal purposes; others are only used for dealing with the spiritual implications of illness. Each remedy represents a step in the healing process for my local friends and neighbors. These are the kinds of home remedies that are used before a visit to the doctor, or maybe in conjunction with a Western medical treatment, like an antibiotic. Mainly the treatments are for symptoms, not for root illnesses.
Perhaps the most useful thing I learned (again) from researching local folk medicine was the great cross-cultural communication lesson: two people can use the same words and mean completely different things. This was most clearly illustrated when my friends and I discussed the spiritual implications of illness. Many illnesses are traced to a spiritual problem.
As a rather normal Westerner, I don’t think much of demons when I think of illness. If the idea of spiritual possession comes to mind, I see it as mainly a spiritual problem — and it is a problem, without a doubt. For some of my friends, as I learned, there are different kinds of demons, with different drawbacks or benefits. My friends used the same words for demons as I do and meant radically different things. I was reminded that to use the same vocabulary is not to have the same concept behind the vocabulary. I can easily look up the equivalent in my nice brown dictionary and know a new word. However, to begin to understand the concept behind a word takes hours of discussion, questioning and reflecting.
What a long and trying process it is to begin to understand another culture. To know language is not enough — to understand the concepts behind language is paramount.