The cultural influences on the study of traditional medicine and psychoactive plants.

The cultural influences on the study of traditional medicine and psychoactive plants

A number of interlinked factors have caused Africa and Southern Africa in particular to be lacking in the study of psychoactive plants. Some reasons include: researcher bias concerning substance use, a lack of attention by researchers to the region’s psychoactive flora, the overlooking of more subtle psychoactive effects of traditional plants medicines and the loss of indigenous knowledge concerning psychoactive plant use due to acculturation (Sobiecki, 2008). Another significant influence, especially relevant to South Africa, is the political history of the region and the immediate and continued conflict experienced with the arrival and meeting between the European colonialists and the Southern Bantu speaking people. Colonial beliefs constructed and framed African traditional healing practices and traditional medicine as primitive, unsophisticated and satanic, (Croucamp, 2001:1), which would have negative repercussions for the study of Southern African ethnomedicine practices (see Sobiecki, 2014:4). After having attacked and subjugated the indigenous South African people, the apartheid system would cause a social rift between white and black people that would have obvious consequences not only in terms of social separation but also in terms of research. Thus, together with the global stigma on substance use research there also existed a racist element in South African society that would predictably polarize race relations, ethnomedicine and western medicine practices, and skew and bias ethnobotanical research being generated then, by mostly white western scholars. This is evidenced from the clearly racist attitudes of a number of the early ethnologists researching South African traditional societies see (Croucamp, 2001) and the fact that the majority of ethnobotanical studies from South Africa in the last three decades have focused on medicinal and food plants with only a few relating to the category ‘Magic, ritual and customs’. It is this last category that appears to be rich in plant species with reported psychoactive uses and effects (Sobiecki 2008, 2012), and which deserves much more thorough attention and research.

Similar cultural prejudices have occurred elsewhere in the world that has negatively affected our ability to appreciate traditional cultures and their systems of medicine and philosophy. Much of this cultural propaganda that was common 100 years ago in South Africa is still very much alive in the psyches of people today, though we do not see these culturally prejudiced beliefs in the media any longer in South Africa.

What is much less common than the sensational focus on the magical uses of traditional African medicine, are the 1000’s of cases of people who use traditional medicines daily to effectively treat and prevent health conditions such as infections, parasites, and to alleviate stress, high blood pressure and high blood sugar as examples. We can all benefit from this knowledge especially with regards to using South African medicinal plants to alleviate stress and anxiety, of which many exist. To address this we need to bridge the cultural and biological sciences studies of traditional medicine and relook at and discard our ingrained western societal notions regarding traditional ethnomedicines as being primitive and unsophisticated, which again is a belief.

See Sobiecki (2014): The intersection of culture and science in South African Traditional Medicine for more on this and references mentioned.  

By Jean-Francois Sobiecki

I am an ethnobotanist and healer with a passion to research medicinal healing plants and to create healing gardens where we can study traditional medicine for application in health promotion and re-connection to nature.

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