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Bush Medicine: A Bahamian Folk Tradition (Book review)
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Posted by:Apr 2nd 2006, 06:09:30 pm
Fig Tree News TeamAuthor Shares Secrets Of Bush Medicine
By Erica Wells

Most people have heard of strong back, five finger, cerasee and fever grass teas but how many know the background, the supposed benefits and how to prepare the "bush medicine" which has long been a popular method of treatment for various ills.

Veteran educator Martha Hanna-Smith is sure to increase the number of people who do know about the tradition of bush medicine with the publication of her book "Bush Medicine: A Bahamian Folk Tradition," a labour of love that has been almost 30 years in the making.

"It took all those years but I eventually got it published," Mrs. Hanna-Smith told Arts and Entertainment in a phone interview from Abaco, where she is a teacher.

The 80-page book features plants used for "medicinal" and "nutritional" purposes, complete with colourful photographs, historical background, a quick reference section of each featured foliage, a preparation guide and an "ailment" index.

Bahamians have used indigenous plants for medicinal purposes for hundreds of years. This tradition, known as bush medicine, was brought to The Bahamas by African slaves and gained importance in the Family Islands, where doctors were scarce, but a long healthy life seemed to be the standard.

It is estimated that nearly 100 plants found throughout The Bahamas have reportedly been used to cure such common ills as indigestion, colds, diarrhoea and headaches, and other more serious ailments.

For example, the Aloe plant has many uses Ė burns, constipation and as a cleanser Ė and many ways of preparation. You can eat the gel, "steep" the gel and drink it, among other methods, according to Mrs. Hanna-Smithís book.

Sheppard Needle, which is easy to find in just about any bushy area, can be used for high blood pressure; as are as the Sour Sop and pear leaves, says Mrs. Hanna-Smith.

And she should know.

Mrs. Hanna-Smith drinks a Sour Sop and garlic tea potion in the morning as part of a regular "bush tea" routine.

Catnip, which is not that common, is good to treat children who have worms; and the crushed flowers from Thistle or Mexican Holly will get rid of ring worm in a day or two, according to Mrs. Hanna-Smithís research that has spanned an entire life time.

But bush medicine has always been a part of her life.

As a child growing up in Acklins, her morning routine of drinking bush tea began, and she started collecting the plants needed for these concotions herself at the age of four or five, she recalls.

It was a tradition passed on by her parents, who made sure that Mrs. Hanna-Smith and her siblings got their daily dose of bush medicine.

"My father insisted that all of his children take some aloe every morning. We would dip the aloe in some hot water, followed by sucking on a lime," says Mrs. Hanna-Smith, who has also passed on that tradition to her own children.

While the tradition of bush medicine was an integral part of her childhood, Mrs. Hanna-Smith took that tradition a step further when she decided to do a comparison of bush medicine plants on Acklins and San Salvador, including methods of preparations.

It was for a project she did while pursuing an education degree at teachers college in San Salvador, where she focused on biology. Mrs. Hanna-Martin prepared powders from the various plants, boiled some and pressed the others for her presentation.

For that project she got a distinction.

In 1979, about eight years later, while studying at the University of the West Indies, Mrs. Hanna-Smith decided to tackle the topic again, this time she expanded the scope and focused on bush medicine in Bahamian folk tradition.

For that study, she also achieved a distinction and was encouraged to publish the end result.

And despite some bumps in the road and a number of challenges, after more than 20 years, she did just that through printers in Miami, Florida.

Her research included interviews with doctors, midwives and local experts on bush medicine. Her tests on the effectiveness and safety of the plants referred to in her book were mostly "trial and error."

"We always watched what the goats and sheep were eating, what they didnít touch we didnít touch. We knew if they were eating it, it was safe. And of course we would monitor the effects of certain plants on certain illnesses to come up with what plants helped with what," explains Mrs. Hanna-Smith.

But she warns that people interested in bush medicine should be very careful about who they ask to collect plants, as some are poisonous, and she emphasised that anyone currently on medication should consult their physician before taking any other supplement.

She also issued the important reminder, "everything in moderation."

Mrs. Hanna-Smith, who is in her 50s and has been teaching for 37 years, describes herself as healthy and swears by bush medicine and hard work, which she says keeps her young. "I still drink my bush tea. So I donít think it works, I know it works. Itís been proven."

However, she admits that the measurements Ė which usually come by the handful - are still very rough and proper dosages still need to be worked out.

So far, sales of "Bush Medicine: A Bahamian Folk Tradition," now available at local bookstores, are going very well, says Mrs. Hanna-Smith, who is already planning an updated, expanded second edition.

Mrs. Hanna-Smith would also like to see the book made available in the Family Islands, where the practice is relatively more alive than it is the capital of New Providence, and the plants more readily available.

Whether you agree with "bush medicine" or not, "Bush Medicine: A Bahamian Folk Tradition" provides an interesting look into one aspect of the rich heritage and traditions of The Bahamas.

Rod Attrill, a former newspaper columnist and biologist who wrote for local dailies in The Bahamas between 1977 and 1985, sums up the mystery surrounding bush medicine nicely: "Before modern medicine was invented, people in every country used local plants to cure health problems. People believed these medicines would work, and they often did! Sometimes they worked because people believed in them and sometimes they worked because they actually contained a drug that cured the condition. Many of our modern drugs have been developed from plants that have been used for thousands of years as herbal remedies. There is a lot to be learned from herbal remedies still!"

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