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Disease and Medicine

Since the beginning of time, the world has suffered disease as part of everyday life. Its impact has been that of a deficiency making some people momentarily or definitely disadvantaged with respect to others, and for that reason alone, if nothing else, it has opened the door to the thoughts of all those who feel directly or indirectly concerned about peoples’ plights.

Not exclusively a human plight, disease has been observed in both plant and animal kingdoms. Virus, bacteria and fungi develop on rocks and literally prey upon them. Botanists and agronomists have observed the infectious diseases of plants and the immunological reactions those plants develop as a defense mechanism. Others have noticed the role played by natural selection which reduces the impact of the pathology on the life of many wild animals and plants. Grooming, – dust – sand – and mud – bathing and frictions have been observed by naturalists as forms of treatment amongst various animals, others also ingest certain leaves or barks of trees which are not part of their ordinary diet and certain birds have even succeeded to reduce fractures of their limbs, to dress up and to bandage their wounds and their sores . . .

Nevertheless, human disease is specific in that the social conditions of existence which develop within each society make for the context in which it is inserted. Colonialism and neocolonialism, for instance, have given rise to a number of endemic diseases which have been perpetuated by the conditions of squalor in which these populations are forced to live. Certain illnesses, just like poverty and illiteracy, are social products.

The Haitian nation, which emerged from the first successful slave rebellion of the New World, faced immense political and economic difficulties from the out start. Isolated on the international arena for over half a century, the country was subjected to neo-colonial domination political strife and other factors to create the situation of poverty which characterizes Haiti today.

It is within this context that the Haitian population has developed its own system of healing. University medicine is of recent introduction in the country and until now has scarcely been able to attend to the populations’ needs in the health domain. Concentrated mainly in the capital and major cities, this medical body depends on expensive imported therapeutic ingredients as well as complex installations. At the present time, there officially exists one hospital bed for 1,400 Haitians, all of them existing in eleven hospital centers spread throughout the roughly 30,000 km 2 of the national territory. One medical doctor attends to a population of 10,000; in 1969, this figure was one for 20,000.

The Holistic Medical System of the Haitian People has emerged as the fruit of the thought and the practice of countless previous generations. It concretely fills the void left by the enormous lack of formal university medicine in attending to the needs of the population in its quest for disease prevention, pains relief, curing ailments, and generally preserving and improving the population’s health. I refer to it as holistic because it consistently connects all parts of the human being, structures and substructures, to the whole: in reality, no part of the individual can be well understood without reference to the totality in which it is subsumed, mind, spirit, body, society and universe. It is a system in that, following the object of its study, this art reveals a great complexity, being formed of many interconnected and interrelated parts: an organic whole, a system.

The thought which has given birth to this medical system seems to be greatly in continuity with the knowledge and the reflections of this peoples’ African ancestors. A significant contribution may have come from Native American ancestors as well, and European elements may also have partially contributed to its development. The Traditional Medical system of Haiti is, thus, part of the people’s culture, a people who have found in the reservoir of its heritage the principles, methods and medical knowledge which are appropriate to their needs and fit their thoughts.

Previous Research and Considerations

The bibliography included in this work reveals a very limited amount of work done in this domain. Much has been biased and much remains to be done. This work relies a good deal, however, on the seminal doctoral thesis presented in 1985 by Bernard Weniger of the University of Metz (France – School of Pharmacy and Toxicology). This author shows the results of qualitative chemical or biochemical assays. When applicable, I will make use of them. The names and addresses of the laboratories have not been mentioned.

Having been personally involved in treating professionally a large number of patients by the Traditional method for over a quarter of a century, I will take the liberty to offer what seems to me a systematic approach and categorization of Traditional Medical practices in Haiti, and I will also indicate what I think were the methods used to carry out the cures and their principles. Naturally engaging nobody else but myself, my aim here is to go beyond the level of description and to highlight the meanings and values embedded in them. I will avoid, as much as possible, the nuances and subtleties of religious, philosophical, medical and biological languages, arguments and controversies, to best serve the interests of those who want to gain an introductory knowledge in this domain.

Since there has never been any official recognition of the existence of such a field as Traditional Medicine by any of the governments of Haiti, nor tests to check across the board the knowledge of the professionals, I will not suggest by any means, nor will I imply, that the practice of Traditional Medicine is perfectly understood by all Hugan and Manbo who profess in, and outside, the country, nor that the practice is everywhere similar. I know for a fact that Hugan and Manbo of different regions often function within specifically delimited eco-systems, so that their knowledge is often restricted to the herbs of the area within which they function. I mention this because it has often been overlooked, or misinterpreted as ignorance, by foreign visitors and scientists. In reality, it only shows a form of specialization that may be described as different schools of studies. And, in this field, like in many others, there exist degrees of competencies that are as widely varied.

I make no claim either, implicitly or explicitly, that only in Haiti is Traditional Medicine practiced that way and that it cannot be found elsewhere. Furthermore, I state with pride that the knowledge I have acquired came from the lengthy and patient tutoring by a large number of illiterate doctors of Haiti known as Hugan and Mambo. Through the years, they had accumulated a large number of decades in the practice of Traditional Healing. Generously, they have accepted to pass their knowledge to me. It gives me utmost pleasure to record here my gratitude. This is why I apologize beforehand for all errors, shortcomings or omissions that would be due to my own limitations and I pledge at the same time to remain open to all criticisms.


I divide the practice of holistic healing in Haiti in three different parts:

First, a Phytotherapeutic Social system which is unique in that healers are not expected to be professionals. Having learned the positive effect of a recipe through past experience, he or she is able to offer it to a sick person only as a suggestion. By so doing, that compassionate healer, consciously or unconsciously, accomplishes a cultural act and also a medical one, though he or she may never feel concerned by matters of methods and principles. It is well understood, in this case, that the treatment is only making use of a "Simple", this type of social Medicine being generally described as "The Simple method of healing", or "medsin senp". The Haitian people refer to it by such an expression because, probably, of the limited scope of such an activity.
Second, a Phytotherapeutic Medical system which is only practiced by professionals. The latter are of diverse types: as a supremely recognized healer, he or she may bear the title of Hugan (man) or Manbo / Hugbonn (woman). The Hugan and Manbo, guardians of the ancestral tradition, are theoretically fully equivalent in the exercise of their function when both of them have learned the same way the correct utilization of plants and herbs and the manner to correlate them to people’s ailments. There also exist, however, a wide number of other healers, such as the doktè fèy (leaf doctor), fanm chaj (midwife) and ganga (healer).
Thirdly, a Masterly Medical system. The principles reigning here are based upon the dynamism of a certain concept of Life named energy, meaning a Force that has no mass but has definite potentialities of action. Divinity is seen as the source of all lives, thus of all energies, and ultimately, Her Energy is always tapped by the professionals to carry out cures. The human being is also seen as an energy of a lesser dimension, as are animals, plants and everything else that possess life. All function well within a normal range, and out of the norms, or outside of the normal range of energy, the person is recognized to be sick, and feels that way.

All three systems are in use side by side in Haiti. Fitting well together, they act as complementary to each other and to University Medicine. Highly appreciated by the population who turns to them nine times out of ten, they reduce proportionately the load of the Hospitals and of the Physicians who, in spite of that, still seem overworked by what is left for them to do. However, no government in Haiti has ever recognized the existence of such a parallel form of Medical practice and no credit, no support and no encouragement have ever been given to the Traditionalists.


  * Vodun priests and priestesses, guardians of ancestral tradition.


©Max Beauvoir 1998
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