Thursday, 8 April 2010

Herbal medicine in post earthquake Haiti

Seeking to find a meaning for the earthquake in Haiti, some news accounts have portrayed ideas of why Mother Nature and the land would create such devastation, while others have attempted to put the earthquake in the context of Haitian Vodou* and spirituality. Common in many of these stories are themes of punishment, wrath, and pity. But in this time of tragedy, a Haitian traditional medicine system offers a more positive relationship for the people, their religion, and the land.

The importance of this Vodou-based medicine system, which can be used to treat illnesses, infection, pain, and other ailments,1 is magnified as the slow-moving pace of medical and food aid continues. More than a week after the earthquake, hundreds of people in Chatuley, Haiti could be seen gathering in a field, some cooking potatoes from the surrounding fields and others boiling herbal remedies of leafs, twigs, and spices to avoid infection.2 A week earlier, a UN peacekeeper observed Vodou practitioners providing medical care for survivors in the slums of Cite Soleil because other organized conventional medical care had not yet arrived.3

“Vodou medicine is very active today in treating patients, even those with broken bones or [collapsed] organs,” said Max G. Beauvoir, PhD, founder of the Temple of Yehwe in Haiti (e-mail, January 25, 2010), which aims to foster the understanding of Vodou.4

Prior to the earthquake, conventional Western medicine was available in the capital of Port-au-Prince and other large cities, but was not easily accessible by the majority of the population.5

“Haitians fend for themselves,” said Nicole Miller, a mambo, or Vodou priestess of the Temple of Yehwe (e-mail, January 27, 2010). “The Haitian people have been using herbal medicines for generations and will continue to do so. It is our tradition and has always been a safe and better way for healing—physically and spiritually.”

The system traditional medicine commonly used in Haiti includes 3 main levels of practice that are believed to work synergistically and aim to consider the connection between a person’s mind, spirit, body, society, and universe.5 The most prevalent and “simple” level includes non-professionals, such as family members or close friends who recommend herbs or infusions based on a moral responsibility to others. The middle level includes professional healers, such as hugans or mambos, vodou priests and priestesses who serve as guardians of ancestral knowledge and tradition, as well as Doktè-Fèy (leaf doctor), Fanm-Chaj (midwife), and Ganga (healer). The highest level of expertise is referred to as a “masterly medical system,” and is based upon a dynamic life energy force that can be tapped into by professionals to cure certain ailments. Professional healers use herbal baths, teas, infusions, and ointments in order to give to or take away energy from the patient.

This complex system of traditional medicine features contributions from Haitians’ African ancestors and indigenous groups, and it varies depending upon the plant life of the region in which it is practiced. Herbal treatment is an important aspect, and it is considered essential to collect herbs from the wild only after proper respect has been given to the plant through dance, song, or monetary payment.

The current body of research and documented information on Haitian traditional and vodou medicine is sparse. American ethnobotanists wrote in 1993 that the religious, cultural, and political atmosphere in Haiti has made studying the country’s enthnomedicine difficult.6

Some US-based natural medicine organizations are conducting relief efforts in Haiti and are using or planning to use information and herbs from Haitian traditional medicine.

Herbs for Orphans, a US nonprofit, has been supplying Haitian orphanages with herbs and nutritional dietary supplements for about 2 years. When the earthquake happened, the group expanded its efforts into the larger community,7 and it now has 2 teams working in Haiti. In about a week the teams plan to come back to the United States to be re-supplied, and then plan to return to Haiti.

The nonprofit Natural Doctors International (NDI), meanwhile, is currently organizing a Haiti relief effort made up of experts in the naturopathic community.8

“It is so important to mobilize as soon as logistically possible,” said Sabine Thomas, ND, who has partnered with NDI to lead the relief effort (oral communication and e-mail, January 25, 2010).

Dr. Thomas, whose parents are Haitian and who has family currently in Haiti, is currently collecting donations and assembling a group of North American naturopathic doctors (NDs) to travel to the island nation. She is also coordinating with various organizations in Haiti that use and promote natural medicine, including the Temple of Yehwe.

“The innate use of traditional medicine will be a huge asset to any naturopathic medical relief effort in Haiti,” she said

“NDI will work with anyone in Haiti that is in need,” said Tabatha Parker, ND, executive director of NDI (e-mail, January 25, 2010). “We would be honored to work with any Haitian traditional medicine practitioners. We look forward to working with the Haitian peoples and openly accept their use of traditional, herbal and vodou medicines.”

In addition to naturopathic physicians, the NDI team may also include herbalists, massage therapists, nutritionists, and other natural medicine practitioners, including some with training in emergency medicine and disaster relief. Conditions such as mental health issues, insomnia, and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are already setting in, and having naturopathic physicians who address the mind, body, and spirit will aid in healing these types of multi-factorial conditions that arise in post-disaster settings, said Dr. Thomas.

“We may not be surgeons, but we are primary care practitioners,” she said. “As the shock of the earthquake settles in, people will benefit from the holistic care that naturopathic physicians excel at providing.

According to Dr. Thomas, the NDI team is planning to work at preventing and treating wound infections by using various modalities, such as botanical and homeopathic medicines. NDs, who often excel at preventative and chronic care, can also address Haiti’s high rate of diabetes and hypertension, which will be accelerated by the complete change in flora and nutrition after the earthquake, she said.

“In Nicaragua, naturopathic physicians have been working for over 5 years in the Ministry of Health system treating both chronic and acute conditions very successfully,” said Dr. Parker. “Our use of natural medicine has been embraced by the Nicaraguan culture, and I am confident that Haitians will benefit from such holistic medicine, especially during a time of such disjointedness and chaos.”

Because traditional medicine is mainly used by the rural population, it could play a big role in helping people heal as the Haitian government moves earthquake survivors from Port-au-Prince into the countryside, said Dr. Thomas. The situation will give Haitians the opportunity to regain exposure to the traditional medicine that their parents and grandparents taught them, but that they may have since forgotten, she said.

“Chances are that [herbal medicine] is probably what is available there,” she continued. “My hope is that there will be a complete revival of sustainable use and access to natural and traditional medicine.”

*While most Western news reports use the spelling “voodoo,” Haitians commonly use the spelling “vodou,” or “vodoun.”

More information is available at Herbs for Orphans’ website, NDI’s website, and the Temple of Yehwe's website.

—Lindsay Stafford
HerbalEGram: Volume 7, Number 2, February 2010


1. Nicolas G., DeSilva A., Grey K., et al. Using a multicultural lens to understand illnesses among Haitians living in America. Professional Psychology: Research and Politics. 2006:37(6);702-707.

2. McLean J. City ‘must have 20,000 dead, but nobody’s talking about it.’ The Toronto Star. January 20, 2010. Available at: Accessed January 21, 2010.

3. Schneider A. Rush of medical aid to Haiti follows history of suffering. January 15, 2010. AOL News. Available at: Accessed January 27, 2010.

4. What is the Temple of Yehwe? The Temple of Yehwe website. Available at: Accessed January 27, 2010.

5. Of herbs. The Temple of Yehwe website. Available at: Accessed January 26, 2010.

6. Paul A., Cox P. An ethnobotanical survey of the uses for Citrus aurantium (Rutaceae) in Haiti. Economic Botany. 1995:49(3);249-256.

7. Homepage. Herbs 4 Orphans website. Available at: Accessed February 1, 2010.

8. Help the earthquake victims in Haiti. Natural Doctors International website. Available at: Accessed January 21, 2010.

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