The Spirit of the Plant’: Exotic Ethnopharmacopeia Among Traditional Healers in Madina, Accra

Bryn Trevelyan James

The conference paper summarised here was drawn from a broader PhD thesis: ‘The Healer's Tools – A study of Material Assemblages amongst Healing Practitioners in Ghana and their Archaeological Implications’. At the core of the research were two seasons of fieldwork engagements with over thirty practitioners living amongst the Muslim migrant community of Madina, a zongo (stranger’s quarters) in Ghana’s capital, Accra.  Through collaboration with contemporary indigenous healers the project’s aim was to explore materiality and performances associated with traditional medicines, tools, workspaces and preparation activities. An archaeologist by training, my intention was to reflect upon such encounters to broaden interpretive perspectives on related processes in the past (Insoll 2004:113-116).

Plant remedies comprised a large part of these findings, and the RAI symposium presented an opportunity to pick at the thread of an idea weaving its way through a fuller chapter on herbalist practices: the position of non-African or exotic species within traditional pharmacopoeias. One of the reasons occurrence of exotic species in indigenous therapeutics is significant is because it challenges discourses on African medicine which portray either derogatory or romanticised images of traditional specialists as static agents, insular conservatives, or mere repositories for ancestral knowledge (Rekdal 1999:459). A motivation for this discussion was thus to critique such notions through considering examples of exchange and creativity within the herbal pharmacopeia, exemplified by the usage and naturalisation of ‘exotics’ alongside local flora, as show in Fig. 1. I argue these plant-based cures of the may-magane (medicine-man) reflect an inherited discourse which, far from static, has over time been a field enriched by transmissions across cultures (Last 1992:402). Transmissions facilitated not only by the medicine-man but also by the market woman, whose trading activities stimulate assimilation of distinct regional herbal traditions and provide the context for adaptation of outside influences.


Figure 1. Chief Adamu’s “eleven herbs of great ‘karfie (strength).” Intermingled amongst the indigenous species are parts of three plants (chilli, ginger & garlic) originally native to foreign environments – it was this image which first sparked my interest in the role of non-local substances.

But what do we mean by ‘exotics’? In this case, ‘exotic’ is defined in the botanical sense: introduced, non-local plants found outside their native distribution range, which have arrived there by human activity. Examples of the most frequently documented exotics across the sample of 141 ‘natural’ herbal remedies collected from contemporary practitioners can be seen in Fig. 2. Importantly, many curative plants used across Madina could not be gathered in the locality, partly because of environmental degradation, but also because some were restricted to different ecological zones. In these cases, healers sourced supplies from traders, a relationship emphasised by the finding that five plants key to participant healers were also amongst those species sold in greatest volume at Ghanaian medicine markets (Van Andel et al. 2012:370). Therefore, analysis of the commonest species in Madina’s pharmacopeia indicates: (1) a significant proportion were exotics; and, (2) markets are an important site for acquiring healing resources.


Figure 2. The twenty most common medicine plants in Madina. Species highlighted in red are exotics, whilst species in blue are those sold in greatest bulk at Ghanaian markets (Van Andel et al. 2012) .
Overall, fourteen exotic substances were identified across the sample. However, given these findings, there is a surprising gap in West African literature concerning indigenous adaptation of historically introduced species into the local materia media (Konadu 2007:5). To move beyond this the paper traced the geographic origins and earliest documented dates of import to sub-Saharan Africa for exotic plants utilised in contemporary Madina. The findings, shown in Fig. 3, should be considered provisional however, particularly in light of growing archaeological evidence, including Liverani’s (2000:43) study which indicates trans-Saharan trade occurred prior to Islamic times. Interpretively though, what can be said about the process of assimilation of such exotics, from introduction to the contemporary era, whereby chilli, ginger and lime are so widely used they receive only passing notice in discussion of tradition health care? How were these exotics historically encountered and introduced?


Figure 3. Native origins & earliest documented import date to sub-Saharan Africa of exotic species found in contemporary Madina (adapted from Alpern 2008).
Examples of cross-cultural therapeutic transmissions are found in ethnographic literature from across Africa (e.g. Osseo-Asare 2008), but as Rekdal (1999:468) notes past models from colonialist and structural-functionalist anthropologies have imposed biases diminishing a prominent feature of traditional medicine: the search for healing from afar. Consequently, accounts overlook a central African paradigm structuring historic acceptance of exotic species, attribution of power to the culturally distant (Parkin 1968:424). This belief motivates, indeed impels, engagement with the ‘other’, facilitating assimilation of foreign substances on local terms. Geographical distance coincides with cultural difference, across indigenous cosmologies increasing ‘difference’ corresponds with perceived alien origins often symbolic of hidden or supernatural powers. To healers like Omar in Fig. 4, the very ambiguity of the unknown thus becomes advantageous as they may actively appropriate and rework such materials to their own ends.


Figure 4. “The spirit of the plant is strong here.” Omar gathering herbs at the University of Ghana Botanical Gardens - the foreign species give ‘karfie (strength) to flora in the vicinity.
Where though does one encounter ‘outside’ elements? Which contexts should we look to as archaeologists or anthropologists seeking to trace movement of substances throughout the pharmacopeia of West Africa? A good place to start answering that question are the specialist medicine markets (Fig. 5), where wares are brought by suppliers from across the continent and assessed by stall holders who act as arbitrators of quality. One would hypothesise a similar process historically: markets as conduits, traders as catalysts for exchange; providing the stage and the actors for dialogue across systems of traditional healing (Konadu 2007:6). I argue there is continuity to this discourse, sites like the Timber Market remaining central to the search for well-being as an on-going, living cultural practice – thus offering an interpretive window onto related activities in the past.   


Figure 5. A view of the Timber Market and Mrs Mother’s stall, note the range of materials.
The paper thus reaches the conclusion that naturalisation of exotic species within Madina’s heterogeneous pharmacopeia is one outcome of an active, creative process of adaptive syncretism by generations of healers. Furthermore, such on-going acceptance and assimilation of foreign substances may be better understood through reference to the African paradigm of belief in the power of the medicine of the culturally different: the desire to appropriate outside elements and rework them with reference to local traditions. In these terms the paper closes, with a call to add detail to conceptions of the healer/stall-holder/supplier relationships at urban specialist markets which provide the key context for such encounters, not only with exotic species and the materiality of the other, but also unfamiliar curative systems and cosmologies of well-being.

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