Raising the Dust Chapter Reflections:
Chapter 12 part II ‒ Wrapping Up
The journey forward
The central argument of this study is that there’s a strong connection between human and ecological health. My study looks at this nexus through the lens of African traditional medicine; specifically, the traditional medicine practiced in and around Mulanje Mountain, in the south of Malawi. Despite the impacts of colonisation, medical and religious imperialism ‒ and more recent trade related globalisation pressures ‒ traditional medicine is very much alive in the Mulanje Mountain Biosphere Reserve. The participants in this study maintain their traditional medical knowledge, principles and beliefs in an everyday, practical way. They do not hide behind closed doors and nor do they want to keep their knowledge ‘secret’. This places them in an interesting position. On the one hand they are practicing according to a particular set of traditional ‘rules’, and on the other, they’ve been drawn directly into the market place by the need to survive in a rapidly changing world. Although it might seem that the commodification of local life threatens to fragment their knowledge, risking the very resources they rely on, traditional healers are not passive subjects of these tensions. They have responded by resisting, and changing, and they are an important part of the health transformations taking place today.
To summarise briefly, the main themes to emerge from this narrative ethnographic inquiry are; that there is an inextricable connection between people’s practices and beliefs; that traditional medicine is a living practice; that the traditional medicine practiced by the interview participants in this study is a unique and valuable approach to health and wellbeing, worthy of further exploration; that declining resources and the increasing pressures of globalisation are threatening the future of traditional medicine in the Mulanje Mountain Biosphere Reserve.
The factors that influence these issues are complex but the salient idea to emerge is that health is yet to be adequately addressed, either as a human right, or in the context of more balanced relationships between humans and the rest of nature. While it is my deepest hope that there’s still a chance for us to recover the earth based aspects of health and healing, I fear that for people living in the rural areas of Africa, their health and wellbeing is at risk from; the undermining of traditional health outlooks by the biomedical system; by the destruction of the local forests; by the threat of mining; by poverty; by the commodification of life and by the social scorn that comes from some of the churches in the region. Anderson argues that there’s a “close link between human right and environmental abuses” (2010:25)[i] and that, despite the potential for globalisation to enhance health and wellbeing, humanity has instead become consumed by “mindless conformity, intolerant hate, and mutual jealousy”. In a world where diversity is shunned, conflict is inevitable, competition becomes the way of life, and the basic needs of many are unlikely to be met. Nature, it seems, will continue to be an ever disposable trade-off.
Since the future of traditional medicine might be more secure when recognised as a distinct category ‒ associated with a broader ecological framework ‒ this study concludes with a recommendation that it be more closely aligned with – but not integrated into – local natural resource management practices. If diversity remains core to living sustainably, and if traditional medicine is to continue to provide for the health care needs of up to ninety percent of the population in rural areas across the globe, then the state of the local environment must be a critical factor. Stenseth emphasises that the conservation of nature is “by extension the conservation of human life” (199:97)[ii]. Cracraft adds, that like human health, conservation cannot be separated from:
the elimination of poverty, which cannot be separated for the improvement of women’s health, education and economic enfranchisement, which cannot be disentangled from governmental policies of many kinds, and on and on (Cracraft, 2002:128)[iii]
This study concludes, therefore, with the suggestion that the nexus between human and ecological health lies beyond eco-psychology – how we feel about nature – and beyond eco-philosophy – how we think about nature – to include a powerful structural link between humans and the natural environments they inhabit. The nexus between a healthy life and a healthy land is well illustrated through Chewa cosmology. Morris, for example, notes how the Chewa “link life itself with health and wellbeing” (1996:109)[iv]. The flourishing of life depends on the continuous cycles of hot and cold, blood and semen, dust, mud, fire and rain (Kaspin, 1996)[v]. Chewa cosmology links the land with the body, bringing together the material and metaphorical forces of production and reproduction. Traditional healers, like shamans and other spiritual agents, are known to mediate these ancient spirit/matter interrelationships through their daily practices. Their knowledge, practices and beliefs may provide valuable insights into how to respond to the escalating crises threatening the health, wellbeing and happiness of humans ‒ and other animals ‒ in a world currently out of balance. However, as Schűcking and Anderson (1991)[vi] emphasise, first we must attend to the complex ecological causes of these problems.
Posey argues that the best way out of the mess we are in is to recover an authentic understanding of traditional ecological management systems and to “invent an ecology” (2004:204)[vii] powerful enough to offset destructive anthropogenic practices like deforestation, erosion and pollution. In other words, the responsibility lies with those who are causing the damage to start addressing these problems and begin restoring the integrity of the biosphere. Posey adds that we can begin this process by listening carefully to alternative paradigms, but he adds that;
listening is not enough. We must uphold the basic rights of indigenous and traditional peoples to land, territory, knowledge, and traditional resources. And we must discover how the balance sheet of economic utilitarian policies can be countered by the ‘sacred balance’ expressed by such peoples. (Posey, 2004:205)
If we view the Biosphere Reserve as a model for what is happening in the world today, then relationships are evidently defined by conflicts and tension. An email received more than a year after fieldwork ‒ from a correspondent who lived and worked in the area ‒ provides some insight. My correspondent provided an updated on the mining explorations that had been taking place in the Chambe plateau at the time of fieldwork, explaining that:
The Mulanje Mountain wrangle isn’t dying yet … The Springstone mining have eventually given in and pulled out of Mulanje, for the time being. Not sure what the next step will be … I can see a huge legal suit coming … we have been rendered passive the past several months: we cannot go up the mountain, we cannot do anything. They are saying we are spoilers, and therefore the best that can happen is for [us] to pack up and go, else we will be “bewitched” or blood will flow. Whose blood, we don’t know. The threats are real, it appear[s]. (Correspondence, 09 September 2013)
The threats to the mountain are real; as are people’s beliefs in the power of witchcraft, the importance of the ancestral spirits and the omnipresence of a God who gives and takes life. Reference to the flow of blood in this correspondence connected my thoughts back to Chewa cosmology where blood is hot; like fire it’s necessary for life, clearing away the barren time and signaling the beginning of the new growing season (Kaspin, 1996). However, too much heat is dangerous, causing death and destruction. For life to flourish, things must remain in balance. In a place where people struggle to survive on a daily basis, and where conflicts over resources are part of life, it seems that traditional healers can play an important role in maintaining this harmony. They are more likely to do so if their knowledge, practices, skills and beliefs are valued ‒ and if their voices are also included in the health and wellbeing debate.
According to an email received a few months later, the mining situation had changed dramatically. My correspondent informed me that “the Concerned Citizens issue has died down and we are back to dusting off the dust” (Correspondence, 28th January 2014). My correspondent explained that the forest work could now continue “without having to shake-off those parasites from our ears and eyes”! If the ‘Concerned Citizens’, are ‘parasites’, holding back progress, then who is protecting the mountain, I wondered? Despite the ongoing threats: of mining, high population growth, deforestation, poverty, low literacy, mono-cropping, commodification of life as well as the demonization of traditional medical practices and beliefs, the participants in this study are providing affordable, accessible and culturally appropriate health care to the local community. Moreover, as one interview participant said, the local healers are “not only guarding Mulanje, but the whole of Malawi” (Phalombe, 15 June 2012).
This study presents traditional medicine as a living, breathing active practice that does not take place in secret locations. Instead, it’s very much a part of the local community. It’s not defined by mystical meanings and magical interpretations but is grounded in the mud and the blood and the dust of the struggles of daily life. Given these everyday realities, it can help us understand the complex links between human and ecological health, particularly if we are able to listen to and respect the rights of traditional and Indigenous peoples. Studies like this can enliven, enrich and inform the current health and wellbeing debate. In light of this, my reflections end with an invitation to other researchers, scholars and interested parties ‒ from various sectors ‒ to challenge, take up and engage deeply with these contemporary ecological ideas.
Dr Theresa Jones (PhD) is an intuitive counsellor, incorporating holistic principles and energy healing in her practice, Inner Sense Intuitive Counselling Services. You can contact her on 0458268605
[i] Anderson, E. N. (2010). The Pursuit of Ecotopia: Lessons from Indigenous and Traditional Societies for the Human Ecology of our Modern World. California: Praeger.
[ii] Stenseth, N. (1999). The Limits of Nature. In W. Lafferty., & O. Langhelle, (Eds.), Towards Sustainable Development: On the goals of development and the conditions of sustainability (pp 97-109). London: MacMillan Press.
[iii] Cracraft, J. (2002). The Seven Great Questions of Systematic Biology: An Essential Foundation for Conservation and the Sustainable use of Biodiversity. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Gardens, 89(2), 127-144.
[iv] Morris, B. (1996). Chewa Medical Botany: A Study of Herbalism in Southern Malawi. Hamburg: International African Institute.
[v] Kaspin, D. (1996). A Chewa cosmology of the body. American Ethnologist, 23(3), 561-578.
[vi] Schűcking, H., & Anderson, P. (1991). Voices Unheard and Unheaded. In V. Shiva., P. Anderson., H. Schűcking., A. Gray., L. Lohmann., & D. Cooper, (Eds.), Biodiversity: Social and Ecological Perspectives (pp 13-41). Malaysia: World Rainforest Movement.
[vii] Posey, D. (2004). Indigenous Knowledge and Ethics: A Darrell Posey Reader. New York: Routledge.