Alternative medicine

The Bahamian heritage of bush medicine

Martha Hanna-Smith is an educator who grew up on Acklins Island in the Bahamas, which is 92 square miles in size.

As an artisan and educator, Hanna-Smith has been teaching local residents how to turn their crafts into entrepreneurship for over 40 years.

She works with the natural materials of her native land, including straw, shells and sand, to create culturally relevant art. Its other specialties include its herbal teas, jams and jellies.

“I’ve been drinking bush teas all my life, so that’s all I know. I didn’t know anything about cocoa or Ovaltine, so I had to resort to what we had in the garden,” says Hanna-Smith. “All the plants, like the soursop and all the others, were there.”

She discovered herbs by observing her elders. If she saw a plant she didn’t recognize, she asked to know more.

“I learned a lot from older people, just by asking questions and also seeing what they were using,” she says.

Eventually, Hanna-Smith’s work on plants attracted attention, and she received accolades for her study of bush medicine. In 2006, she published a book titled “Bush medicine in the folk tradition of the Bahamas.”

Hanna-Smith was instrumental in teaching the health benefits of bush medicine, establishing local craft associations, and embodying and preserving Bahamian culture.

“The practice of bush medicine has been one of the many contributions of Africans to this part of the world,” says Hanna-Smith. “He is considered in the Bahamas as an African survival [necessity].”

She notes that bush medicine is linked to transatlantic slave tradeand the plants used when slavery was in effect are among those still used today.

“We believe that the Africans, when they were transported here, brought seeds and plants with them, and they passed on their knowledge of these plants,” says Hanna-Smith.

Bush medicine is most often used to make tea, but it can also be used for ointments, poultices, and rubs. Some commonly used plants include:

Fever grass is one of the best known bush medicines and easily identified by its scent.

Known as lemongrass in other parts of the world, it is used to relieve fever and promote relaxation. The flavor is similar to lemon zest and the herb helps support the immune system.

“Fever grass is the one you need to wash thoroughly because dogs love to pee on it and it can make you very sick,” warns Hanna-Smith. “Once washed, you can boil it, but some people mash it too. And I find that this method gives it more strength.

Cerasee has a reputation as an all-purpose herb in the Bahamas. It’s used for common ailments, from stomach pains to colds, and it’s also beneficial for diabetes.

Many Bahamian adults remember being forced to drink bitter tea as sick children.

Kamalame, also called gumbo limbo, is known as the “healing tree”. Its sap can be used to treat skin reactions to other plants.

In her study of bush medicine across the islands, Hanna-Smith often discovered different names for the same plants.

For example, sapodilla, or dill in the Bahamas, is known as neeseberry in Jamaica. A plant known as blue verbena in Jamaica is called blue flowers in the Bahamas.

“Our parents used to use blue flowers every Sunday morning to cleanse their systems.” Hanna-Smith said.

In most cases, the uses of the plants are the same from island to island, but there have been instances where the plants have been used for purposes different from those known to Hanna-Smith.

Hanna-Smith notes that much of this knowledge was retained by Obeah practitioners and sorcerers, who were among the slaves living in the Bahamas.

These were, and in many cases still are, people familiar with the medicinal properties of plants believed to have connections to the spiritual world.

While these healers were generally important to their communities, the term “witch doctor” has quite negative connotations in modern parlance.

“We have a really rich history. During this period, from 1600 to 1800, Europeans and Africans were here, and the Europeans did not agree with the use of this bush medicine,” says Hanna-Smith.

The oral traditions of Obeah, Vodou, Santeria and Shango are still commonly practiced in the Caribbean, despite the colonial heritage that qualifies them as infamous and even demonic.

These stereotypes are still visible in popular culture.

For example, the 2009 Disney film “The Princess and the Frog” features a character named Dr. Facilier, an example of the distortion and villanization of Haitian voodoo common in white culture.

Why such negative treatment?

Aside from the religious shock of the colonizer’s religion, these traditions and the herbal medicine that accompanied them were a power that Africans possessed and kept while they were enslaved.

Their knowledge and, in many cases, their mastery of herbalism gave them the ability, to some extent, to control and heal their own bodies.

It is a right that black people have often been denied.

Practitioners knew which plants healed wounds, relieved stomach ailments, caused vomiting, and even affected the reproductive system.

This allowed Bahamians to take care of themselves and others, even though they did not have access to the same medical care and treatment as white colonizers.

While some indigenous knowledge of bush medicine has been lost, Hanna-Smith believes it is important that the tradition be passed down and continued through generations.

“We have plants that are poisonous, and everyone needs to know to avoid them,” she says. “You have to know how to use the plants that are good. People shouldn’t die with this information.

This belief is part of what drives Hanna-Smith’s work.

Bush medicine is not a relic of the past.

It’s a possible path to a brighter, more empowered future for the Bahamian people – and a potential gateway to a specialized industry that Bahamians can develop using ancestral knowledge.

This would lead not only to better physical health, but also to economic well-being.

The two are undeniably linked.

Previously, others capitalized on the expertise of African Diaspora elders. It is essential that this information is protected and used for the benefit of Africans.

For Hanna-Smith, the future of bush medicine looks positive.

Bahamian students engage in bush medicine research projects. And some teachers assign homework that asks students to identify plants and their medicinal uses.

The inclusion of bush medicine in formal education helps ensure that the tradition will be understood and practiced for years to come.

“I want to see my book in every school in the Bahamas and sold in grocery stores,” says Hanna-Smith. “I want to see wellness centers where people can get the teas they need.”

She adds that she is working on a second book with more plants and kitchen remedies.

Hanna-Smith notes that people often visit the Bahamas and gather information about bush medicine. In many cases, information is given too freely.

Then they return to their countries and capitalize on the knowledge of African descendants.

For example, soursop has gained popularity due to claims that it helps fight against cancer – although there is a lack of human studies to confirm this.

This type of reactionary consumption distorts the true uses of the plant, turning it into a commodity removed from its biological and cultural context.

This makes it easier to manipulate public perception.

Soursop products are increasingly marketed as “kill cancer“, although this claim is not supported by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The soursop is a basic foods and medicines in the Caribbean, and its growing popularity puts it at risk of being overexploited and becoming endangered.

Hanna-Smith stresses the importance of getting to know the plants and herbs in your local ecosystem. She shares some ideas, such as:

  • learn to identify plants
  • learn the history of the bush or herbal medicine in your area
  • pay attention to what local animals are eating for clues

These practices can help you become more aware of the medicinal plants around you.

You can start exploring native plants by:

At the same time, be extremely careful.

In learning plant medicine, it is important to pay attention to detail. Proper identification can mean the difference between life and death.

For example, Hanna-Smith shares that kamalame often grows near poisonwood, a plant that lives up to its name.

She remembers a time when someone died after using poison wood, thinking it was kamalame.

“If you use the wrong plant, I’ll sing for you,” she says, hinting that a funeral will soon follow.

Warning

Never consume plants that you have identified based on an app, online chat, or book. These methods are for education and exploration only. Truly learning to identify plants takes time, careful study, training, and lots of practice.

Always verify the identity of a plant with a herbalist, botanist or other qualified professional before using it for any reason.

Bahamians love bush medicine because it connects them to their land, heritage and ancestors. It’s a tradition they trust.

The tradition of bush medicine helped many Bahamians retain autonomy over their bodies and health during the era of the transatlantic slave trade.

It continues to be a way to honor the past while strengthening the future of the Bahamian people.


Alicia A. Wallace is a queer black feminist, women’s human rights advocate, and writer. She is passionate about social justice and community development. She likes to cook, cook, garden, travel and talk to everyone and no one at the same time on Twitter.