Language, Medicinal Worldview, “Development,” and Public Health
In leb Lango, the word “yat” is used for both “tree” and “medicine.”
What does that say about a human being’s orientation toward his or her environment? Obviously, trees are thought to be important. They are important for survival, not to mention their contributions to tasty meals, construction, sourcing charcoal, fighting climate change, and the like.
There are many trees in Northern Uganda that have functions which are very useful for people. Etube and Omara-mara demarcate land boundaries. Nim and moringa trees help prevent and cure common diseases like malaria. Other plants and leaves, such as that of cassava, are combined with other plants to cure cancer. Lemons, oranges, papayas, and other tree-fruits are useful for a variety of illnesses, including bad cases of heartbreak after a romantic mishap.
So if trees, which offer humanity free-of-charge medical services, are abundant throughout Northern Uganda, why aren’t people commonly using them for nutritional and medicinal purposes today?
The ripple effects of development work and international charity are interesting. Many pharmaceuticals, to meet certain tax requirements, donate surplus medical goods (including expired ones) to organizations in Africa. Not having and not trusting the expertise of local herbalists and doctors, these organizations encourage (and even train) communities to run to pharmaceutical clinics and hospitals to treat all diseases and injuries, no matter how mild or severe.
This trust of “outside experts” has resulted in an over-reliance on pharmaceuticals, which are often biologically predatory anyway. (After all, the aim of a company is to make profits. The goal: keep people sick.) Much of the traditional knowledge about medicinal plants, herbs, trees, etc. is dying away – literally. The expertise rests with the elders in rural villages, many of which have little or no formal schooling. Passing on this knowledge of the land and the things it produces is a type of sankofa being pursued by Solidarity Uganda, an organization attempting to compile a field guide and several internet resources to preserve long-practiced indigenous medicinal remedies. Hands-on trainings will also be facilitated, during which elders will come to urban centers (where knowledge of traditional medicine is scarce) to disseminate their skills among youths.
Knowledge of local herbs used for non-symptomatic birth control, as well as herbs used to make women highly fertile, was once abundant in Northern Uganda. During the colonial era, some missionaries taught that herbs are associated with witchcraft and are therefore devilish. The adoption of this teaching caused indigenous people to withhold their family planning brilliance from their neighbors in the name of Christian morality. Solidarity Uganda will also be working hard to educate local clergy in an effort to persuade laypeople across the nation about the positive facets of traditional medicine. If the organization is lucky, this just might bring the well-guarded birth control herbs back into the public sphere. At the very least, it should restrengthen the correlation between “yat” (tree) and “yat” (medicine).