Issue - January 2007

January 2007

Once again, a New Year is starting with plenty of hopes and ideas for 2007 making it even better than the last one.

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January 2007

Traditional Medicine

by Sarah Turley

Traditional medicine

In June of this year Bolivia´s Minister of Health Dr Nila Heredia unveiled "Para Vivir Bien", an ongoing project for social and economic development which aims to incorporate traditional medicine into the National Health System. Heredia`s intention is to create a new ´philosophy` of health which draws on both Western and traditional Bolivian techniques, thereby ensuring that indigenous medicinal knowledge, beliefs and customs are protected and promoted. A number of strategies have since been implemented by Viceminister of Medicine and Interculturalidad Jaime Zalles Asín, so that today, just five months into the project, natural products can be found in health centres all over Bolivia. "Para Vivir Bien" stresses that traditional medicinal techniques are fundamental to both the prevention and the treatment of illness, a view which is in fact already held by the majority of Bolivia´s population.
BeneficiosAccording to the National Institute of Statistics 40% of Bolivians practice only traditional medicine, while 80% have called on natural healers at some point in their lives. The general consensus is that although modern medicine may seem to heal quicker, the natural resources used by indigenous healers are pure, healing slowly and lasting forever. For me, and I suspect for many other Westerners, this is incredibly interesting. Natural remedies are currently becoming increasingly popular all over Europe and North America, as people have begun to search for medical treatment that is free from chemicals and hormones, and is not controlled by multimillion dollar medical companies. It seemed obvious therefore, that whilst reporting in a country in which not only the people, but also the government openly support natural medicine, I should investigate…

A quick Google search and chat with a few native Bolivians later and I discovered that the beacons of traditional Bolivian medicine are Kallawayas. These were travelling healers (the literal translation from Quechua is ´man that carries herb medicines`) who established themselves in the Bautista Saavedra region of La Paz, but practiced all over South America, from the Altiplano to areas of lower altitude, including the tropics. These men can be traced back to the Tiawanco and Inca civilizations, and were said to be able to heal wounds and cure paralasis, pneumonia, blindness and mental illnessess.

Researching Kallawayan medicine further I found that it emerged from the Andean vision of the world. It has at its core the idea that man is the union of three vital elements: el athun ajaya, the immortal divine force that governs the faculties for thinking, feeling and moving; el juchui ajaya, the astral body; and el cuerpo fisical, the physical body where athun ajaya and juchui ajaya meet. Illness is associated with an imbalance in the ajayas, and is treated based on a profound knowledge of the patient within his or her natural environment, both through contact with the spirits and with natural medicines.

I also discovered that Kallawayas were hugely advanced in their use of natural resources, producing treatments equivalent to penicilin made from fermented fruits such as bananas, and being the first to use the dried bark of the cinchona tree (later used in medical science to prevent and control malaria and other tropical diseases) and the coca plant (also adopted by medical science as the first effective topical anaesthetic).

Although it is no longer very easy to find Kallawayas today, more modern herbal medics exist all over Bolivia, practicing in markets visit (there are few left today), I have come across their herbs and remedies in markets and shops all over Bolivia, further attesting to traditional medicine's ubiquitous presence in the minds of Bolivia's people. Strolling around the ´witches section` of La Cancha yesterday (a place where many of the most traditional – and at times gory - Kallawayan medicines can be found) it then occurred to me that although Bolivia is not home to the world's most high-tech medical centres, perhaps it is actually more forward-thinking than some Western countries.

Where it often seems that medicine in the West is eager only to work with manufactured chemicals, maybe Bolivia's government is taking the right steps by trying to combine nature with science and tradition with technological advancement.

Having visited many of the stalls and shops that sell herbs and natural medicines in Cochabamba, I thought you readers might appreciate a quick list of some of the most commonly used medicinal herbs and their uses. This way you can try out some alternativemedicine and see what you think…

Wira Wira: Stimulates immune system. Can help soothe coughs, bronchitis and asthma.

Cedron: Good for stomach pain, including digestion problems, and for those in shock.

Cola de Caballo: Good for colds.

Boldo: Helps those with insomnia and calms the digestive system. Is also good for rheumatic pains.

Borraja: Good for colds, coughs and pneumonia. Also good for the those with kidney problems.
My life in Taricaya
Despite having been in Cochabamba for over two weeks now I still find myself completely unaccustomed to the wonderfully peaceful nights sleep (without rude interruption by rat, opossum or cockroach), delicious food and presence of street lights and cars as opposed to fire flies and peccaries!?
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