Holistic Living, According to African Traditions

By: Marcella Phillips-Grizzle

For years the African world-view has become an attractive frame of reference for peoples of predominantly African descent who were born, and for the most part, shaped by Western ideology.  However, for many the Westernised pattern of living may be reduced to mere consumerism and a desperate pursuit for material success.  Increasingly, people the world over are pursuing alternative lifestyle practices – which include alternate medicine – in the face of mounting and widespread cases of anxiety, depression, terminal illness, and general ill health.  The quest for greater material rewards, then, propels many to slave over ever increasing workloads which ultimately take a heavy toll on the physical, mental and emotional health of these individuals.  The culture of excess is a terrible phenomenon.  Jamaica is no exception, and as health awareness increases, so does the pursuit of holistic treatment (as a cure), and holistic lifestyle (as a prevention), which has become appealing to persons who wish to add not just more years to life, but more life to their years.

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Calabash bowl containing a traditional African meal of ground provisions and steamed vegetable (callaloo)

Holistic living, as an alternative to the established allopathic medicinal system of the west, is often used as an umbrella term to incorporate any or all of the following traditional practices: herbalism, diet, fasting, acupuncture, massage, etc.  However, according to author, Ra Un Nefer Amen, the prevailing understanding of holistic lifestyle is merely a ‘nonunified collection of diverse practices’, and is at best an eclectic approach.  Holistic practice and medicine is rather the use of a ‘formalized set of symbols that guide thinking to the identification of all the energy factors contributing to the patient’s health and illness.’1  It is a system that typically ‘cross-references types of herbs to types of illnesses, to types of people…in order to build a diagnostic and treatments system that is able to look at the affected parts of the patient in relationship not only to the individual as a whole, but to the individual’s relationship and response to the environment.  This is holistic medicine.’2

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Jamaican castor beans, used to express a valuable oil that treats a wide range of issues

A matter of significance, as it pertains to holistic treatment, is that African symbol formation is arguably most manifest in the context of medicine.  In this respect the origin and symptoms of the illness hold great significance in the dispensing of treatment, which is not wholly consisted of actual medicines, but also comprises a spiritual component.  Medicine, therefore, is ‘a term that covers both natural healing agencies, leaves, roots, and the like, and also the invocation of magical or spiritual influences that are thought to be associated with them.’3  Indeed, the ‘‘medicines’ given by a professional ‘doctor’ are often, perhaps principally, chosen for imagined or spiritual reasons.’4  Notwithstanding, before treatment may begin the appropriate symbol must be identified, which is done by relying on the observation of the symptoms of the illness.  Hence, the ‘symbol reflects the symptoms, which in turn influence the choice of medicine.’5  Importantly also, the healer/herbalist’s medicine always consists of different kinds of objects that are symbolically analogous in some way to the symptoms of the illness.  The healer’s success, then, is largely attributed to their powerful gift of observation.  Therefore, the more analogies they discover, the more effectively they can help.6  This type of traditional healing is termed ‘sympathetic magic’ which, according to author of West African Religion, is based on the belief that ‘using part of a thing, or a copy of an object, may affect the whole.  To wear the horn of an animal is thought to procure the protection of or against the whole beast…..  A violent pain must be cured by a painful remedy…’7

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Prickly Tuna, a member of the cactus family

Artful observation, for any healer, is vital to his aspirations of mastery in the field.  However, the gift of divination is highly desirable among practitioners of holistic lifestyle and medicine.  This is so because persons rely on traditional healers not only for health-related concerns but also for protection against harm and danger.  Thus, a quintessential aspect of the healer’s art lies in his/her ability to interpret the mysteries of life.  So then, while the healer is generally an expert in medicine and herbs, he/she is also a seer.  The healer/diviner’s role therefore involves more than just providing guidance in daily affairs, but also in uncovering the past and looking into the future.  Because of the diviners’ uniquely important and mystical role in traditional societies, they will maintain that they have esoteric secrets ‘of which modern science is ignorant.’8

Endnotes

  1. Ra Un Nefer Amen, Metu Neter Vol.2: Anuk Ausar: The Kamitic Initiation System (Brooklyn, New York: Kamit Publications, 1994) 261
  2. Ra Un Nefer Amen, Metu Neter Vol.2: Anuk Ausar: The Kamitic Initiation System (Brooklyn, New York: Kamit Publications, 1994) 265
  3. Geoffrey Parrinder, West African Religion: A Study of the Beliefs and Practices of Akan, Ewe, Yoruba, Ibo and Kindred Peoples (London: Epworth Press, 1949) 156
  4. Geoffrey Parrinder, West African Religion: A Study of the Beliefs and Practices of Akan, Ewe, Yoruba, Ibo and Kindred Peoples (London: Epworth Press, 1949) 156
  5. Theo Sundemeier, The Individual and the Community in African Traditional Religions (Hamburg, Germany: LIT Verlag Munster, 1998) 47
  6. Theo Sundemeier, The Individual and the Community in African Traditional Religions (Hamburg, Germany: LIT Verlag Munster, 1998) 48
  7. Geoffrey Parrinder, West African Religion: A Study of the Beliefs and Practices of Akan, Ewe, Yoruba, Ibo and Kindred Peoples (London: Epworth Press, 1949) 158
  8. Geoffrey Parrinder, West African Religion: A Study of the Beliefs and Practices of Akan, Ewe, Yoruba, Ibo and Kindred Peoples (London: Epworth Press, 1949) 137

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