Indigenous medicine



While we are beginning to breathe again on the café terraces of Europe, the virus is now hitting the American continent hard.

Panama, since March 21st, lives under strict quarantine. After an attempt to relax measures last month which barely lasted ten days, they have returned to the strict conditions which were originally established and are far more severe than those which we have lived through in Europe.

During those few days of opening up, the virus entered the virgin area of Darién and the native villages are now affected and have experienced a rapid increase in the number of cases. 

 However, in the jungle they do not panic. This virus which they have talked about so much is now actually present amongst them.

Benito who I keep up with regularly by videoconference explains to me that there are, indeed, cases in the village but he remains calm and very positive while he is talking. He tells me that no one is seriously ill. He adds that they continue to work the land and that nothing is lacking, it is a privilege of these jungle villages.

During the course of our conversation, he also tells me “We, the Emberás are all a little bit like sorcerers” and he explains that each day they prepare a potion, made with bitter guava and many other plants that I do not recognize, to protect against the virus. According to Benito, this drink is consumed by everyone each day. The natives also take this drink to the doctors who have been assigned to the big village as well as to the police charged with their safety. At the moment no one is rejecting indigenous medicine. I am happy about that.

This is the first time that Benito has confided in me; he doesn’t usually like to talk about those things because he is a religious convert and his religion asks him to proscribe these esoteric beliefs. But in the face of danger they reconnect with the wonderful native wisdom.

This is confirmed by Danilo who for a month now has unfortunately found himself blocked in the outskirts of Panama City, in a neighborhood where natives from the different tribes are living. During those days of easing the lockdown he had to accompany his mother in law from her village to the hospital to act as interpreter. The lockdown became strict once again and he was unable to return home. He is now trying to obtain authorization from the Ministry of Health in order to be able to leave the city and return to his village.

He also calls me often, the situation is difficult in the town. He tells me that he misses his family and his village, but he can’t get back. Confined in the poorest neighborhoods of Panama, he is worried. He asks me about our doctors, our governments. Do we have medicines? Do we have a vaccine? On learning that we are no closer to having a solution here than they are in his country, he also tells me that in the villages they have turned to native medicine. We have long talks. Danilo is a prisoner in the big city, I can feel that he is anxious and perplexed. He appreciates my interest, for I am not curious, I am captivated, fascinated by their culture.

Until now, most of the women have spoken openly to me about “sorcerers” and indigenous medicine. When the case arises, we simply talk about the women’s illness, the fate that has been dealt to them, how to cure and treat them. 

The witchdoctors who are also known as shamans are the village healers. Whether it be for men or women, the shamans are present in each village. They cure every illness, those of the spirit as well as those of the body. There are good shamans but there are also bad shamans, the casters of spells, for they have a reputation for casting many spells. And this is this reason that no one mixes with them. I understand this reputation, but as of now I have not had much to complain about evil spirits!

To heal, the witchdoctor uses an ancestral knowledge which is communicated orally from generation to generation. This knowledge is vast, and it is not easy to become a shaman. First of all, you have to be elected, then a long apprenticeship begins. And today the shamans are often blacklisted by doctors and religious people, the merits of their practice are denied. However, they represent an enormous part of the native culture.

To cure, they often use plants (yet the pharmaceutical companies do not hesitate to come and get information from them), and invocations, always using their sticks and sometimes masks! Today, faced with the threat posed by the new virus, and faced with the avowed helplessness of our medicine today, they turn once again and with pride to their indigenous medicine.