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Book Review: Traditional Medicine and Women Healers in Trinidad: Postnatal Health Care
Published on May 3, 2012 Email To Friend    Print Version

By Vashti Bowlah

With the increasing number of maternal and infant deaths reported in our hospitals, expecting mothers would like to give serious thought to traditional health care. Our ancestors from Africa and India had brought these folk traditions during slavery and indentureship and continued to practice the only way of life they knew. Most women at that time would have given birth to almost a dozen children in the comfort of their home without the assistance of a registered nurse or midwife.

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Dr Kumar Mahabir’s latest publication, Traditional Medicine & Women Healers in Trinidad: Postnatal Health Care, discusses the relationship between traditional healers and modern healthcare practitioners in Trinidad and Tobago. The information presented in this book was collected from almost two decades of library studies, oral interviews and extensive research on the health system commencing in the mid-1990s, with special focus on patients admitted to the Mt Hope Women’s Hospital.

The book is the first to be published in the English-speaking Caribbean on this subject, and focuses on the postpartum period in which traditional techniques are used to care for the new mothers and their newborn babies. It highlights the activities of traditional masseuses, their training, and other techniques that were passed down from one generation to the next. These masseuses share not only their techniques and personal experiences, but also a major part of their domestic and family lives.

The wealth of information contained in this book makes for interesting reading and is educational in its own right. It documents the traditional day-to-day rituals of the new mother and her newborn under the care and supervision of elders. D. Mahabir is thorough in presenting the information in his book, covering a wide range of topics that include treating female infertility, inducing the flow of breast milk, “setting” the mother’s womb back into place and ensuring she eats the right foods, as well as treating jaundice in the newborn, and massaging the infant to ensure that his head is “shaped” and his limbs “stretched” and “exercised” in a yogic manner. The reader can also learn about the traditional chatti ceremony which is described as “The sixth-day … celebratory, social announcement of the safe return of the new mother and her newborn from the perils of childbirth …”

Traditional Medicine and Women Healers in Trinidad raises a lot of questions. For example, why are traditional medicine and health care -- though easily available and cost effective -- not widely accepted as alternative resources, and are often dismissed as primitive. It questions whether there is any real difference between the folk masseur or bonesetter, with no formal training practicing at home, in treating sprains and fractures, and the certified chiropractor operating in his clinic with expensive equipment, when the end result might be the same. Dr Mahabir argues: “… biomedicine, rather than traditional medicine, is supported by a male-dominated, social elite for political and economic intentions.”

He also states that there were men and women healers of long-ago who “prescribed” lime and honey for sore throat, and the same idea is now being patented, packaged and sold by international drug companies, among other products that bear similarities to traditional home remedies.

What is of particular interest in this book is the key role that women played in a society that was male-dominated, especially at a time when women were expected to be subservient to men. As the book reveals, some of the women performed these activities without their husband’s knowledge or permission because they wanted to serve their community.

Dr Mahabir is successful in documenting the humble traditions and culture of our ancestors, and has done a great favour to both the present and future generations by making this information available in the public domain. It would have been a tremendous loss had this information been left to die a natural death. By publishing this book, he has paid a collective tribute to many remarkable men and women who have dedicated their entire lives to caring for others at a time when public healthcare was not a viable option.

Anyone who reads Traditional Medicine and Women Healers in Trinidad and has never considered folk remedies before will be guaranteed to give it a second thought.

The book is in paperback and available from Chakra Publishing House Ltd as well as major bookstores.

Vashti Bowlah is a Trinidadian writer whose work has appeared in various publications.
 
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