The following is a guest post that I wrote for Plain Talk Bad Manners Book Blog about Jamaican folk healing. You can see the original post here:
Smoke from mosquito coils curled up from the four corners of the room, creating a pall of smoke that hung over Maude Rainford, laying in bed, covered with sweat and surrounded by people. She was in labor with her fifth child. She was muttering about this being her last child. “I had my first in 1918 an’ now is 1929 an is done me ahhh––” The pain would take her breath away, stopping her in mid-syllable. The contractions came quickly as the sun was setting. Robert was born as the darkness descended upon Beeston Street in Kingston where they lived. There was joy in the house, but it was short lived. Something was seriously wrong.
Robert could not open his eyes. They seemed glued shut. Maude immediately wanted to use a country remedy, but her older sister talked her into taking the boy to the doctor. Maude was skeptical. What did they have at Kingston Public Hospital that she didn’t have? She did not trust their medicine. It took hours of persuasion until she relented. Two days later she took Robert to the hospital.
Fifteen minutes later, Maude Rainford was headed home with fire in her eyes, cradling her precious cargo. While at the hospital a nurse nearly dropped the infant, causing Maude to lose what little faith she had in her decision to bring her infant son to the hospital. She walked home, knowing just what she was going to do.
Maude went out to the Castor Bush growing outside and picked some beans and made castor oil by cooking it. You really have to know what you are doing because ricin is found in the castor bean and you have to know how to draw it off. She added the oil to a quarter pound of green marijuana with water in a pot and slow simmered the concoction for hours. Then after straining it, she let it cool off. Each morning she washed the baby’s eyes with this green tinted wash. In one week, Robert’s eyes had opened up. He could see. Everyone rejoiced.
Maude Rainford did not trust western medicine. In general, Jamaicans look upon the medical establishment with suspicion. They prefer folk remedies. For my grandmother, who was Maude Rainford, her suspicions were confirmed when just five years later, her eldest daughter, Alma, was killed by an accidental overdose at Kingston Public Hospital because they gave Alma an injection meant for the patient in the bed next to hers.
Whenever anyone got ill, or felt under the weather, my grandmother, known as DearMa had a remedy. In Kingston she was a well known healer. Her knowledge came from the town of Scotts Hall in central Jamaica. This is an area where Maroons live. Maroons are descendants of Africans who fought plantation owners and escaped the British sugar plantation system. Many of their traditions go directly back to Africa. Scotts Hall was a farming community in 1899 and it still is today. One of the traditions that are extremely strong is the knowledge of so-called folk medicine.
Jamaican folk medicine consists of baths, salves, and teas.
The bush bath is perhaps the most interesting. Seated above a tub filled with very hot water you are covered with blankets. Slowly the rising steam causes perspiration and the breathing in of the steam produces very good results for asthma, pollen and dust allergies. More aromatic plants are used for baths: Fever Grass, Jack-in-the-Bush, Mint, Sage, and Soursop leaves among others. There are also baths for skin maladies as well.
Strangest of all are the folk names for the various plants that are used. For example let’s take Dandelion. You say that word Dandelion and many people understand what you’re talking about. But in Jamaica one name for such a useful plant is not enough. No, in Jamaica, it’s know by three names: Piss-a-Bed, Wild Coffee, and Stinking Weed. The Castor Oil Shrub that grew in Maude’s back yard was her source of castor oil. It’s also known as Oil Nut. There is a song that lists many of the well known herbs used medicinally in Jamaica:
“She had Man Piaba, Woman Piaba
Tom Tom Fall Back and Lemon Grass,
Minnie Root, Gully Root, Granny Backbone,
Dead Man Git Up and Live On turro,
Coolie Bitter and Gorina Bush and old
Compellance Weed, Sweet Broom,
Cow Tongue, Granny Scratch Scratch,
Belly Pusherm and Guzu Weed.”
Then there’s the plants that are good for things other than eating, like the chew stick. Chew stick is made from a vine that grows on trees in the forests of Jamaica. It is also found in Africa. It is well known to treat sores and ulcers in the mouth but it is used primarily as a replacement for the toothbrush. After cutting the vines down, they cut them into hand sized lengths and then soak them in water and fray the end. You use the end to brush your teeth and massage the gums. This vine, used in Africa since ancient times was once a staple in Jamaica. Today most people don’t use chew sticks any more, but some still do in the countryside.
Of course most people associate Jamaica with marijuana, or as Jamaicans call it: ganja. Besides the obvious use, smoking it, the plant is very useful in tinctures and salves. Each time I go to Jamaica the first thing I do is purchase a bottle of white rum. I purchase Jamaican Allspice, known as Pimento, and I get freshly cut ganja. I put it all in the bottle, and bury it for two weeks. Unearthed, the concoction is a dark green color. I decant it into another rum bottle and I bring it home. I only use it when I have the flu or a cold. Upon drinking a tiny capful, maybe a quarter of a shot glass, your nose will clear and the body aches and discomfort disappear. It’s a miraculous analgesic, but caution! Drinking a lot of it is a psychedelic experience. It’s also difficult to take the overpowering allspice. It’s like horseradish, clearing the nose of congestion.
But there is one central herb used for many maladies and it is known as Cerasee or scientifically its known as Momordica charantia. Second only to ganja in its popularity, Cerasee is a weed that grows everywhere in Jamaica. It is incredibly bitter, but for stomach maladies it’s miraculous. My mother used to have Maude send her Cerasee which she used in baths for my eczema when I was young.
The culture of folk medicine in Jamaica is rich. Another of the traditions in folk medicine there is the tradition of making roots tonic. But to learn more about that, I’m going to suggest you read a novel, From Rum To Roots. There is too much detail that I just could never do it justice here…