“Discovered” by Western Medicine

A popular website for medical headlines, medicalnewstoday.com,
recently posted an interesting story titled “Potential New Drugs From
A Cup Of Tea – The Witch Doctors’ Gift.” The article is
describing a video series produced by the American Chemical Society,
and it leads off with a compelling scenario that I will quote at
length, because it is quite interesting:

“A physician on a medical relief mission to Africa sees pregnant women
sip a medicinal tea prepared by local witch doctors when the time for
birth arrives. Made from the leaves of a plant called “kalata-kalata,”
the tea speeds labor and delivery. Scientists analyze the plant and
discover a remarkable new substance. The research puts them on course
for discovery of potential new drugs for diseases that affect millions
of people worldwide.”

What is interesting here is not the “remarkable new substance” that
the Western physician discovered in the African plant. What is
interesting is how utterly oblivious our Western medical culture is to
the fact that medicine can be and is practiced in very legitimate ways
outside of Western medicine.

Notice that the tea was prepared by “local witch doctors.” A witch
doctor is a cliche phrase used to describe anyone practicing tribal,
occult, “ineffective” medicine. The medicine of witch doctors is the
stuff of ridicule: evil eyes, spells, mysterious brews and talismans.
And yet, here is a “witch doctor” giving a tea that works very well as
a medicine to speed labor and delivery. While the writers of the
article would have us believe that it *becomes* medicine once the
Western scientists analyze the plant to find a “remarkable new
substance, that isn’t true at all.

First, the substance isn’t new. It is only new to the Western
scientists. That substance has been used as a medicine (in the form of
a tea containing the substance) for probably hundreds of years.
Second, African tribal healers do not need Western scientists to
legitimize their medicine. The “witch doctor” has been practicing
legitimate medicine all along, it’s just that Western ignorance of
that system of medicine (and every other system of medicine, actually)
didn’t know it until they actually observed it working.

This brings up the third and most important point. The Western
physician in attendance realized that this tea was powerful medicine
because he *observed it work* to speed labor and delivery. If a
Western tribal healer simply *told* a Western physician that the tea
works to speed labor and delivery it would quickly be discounted as
“witch doctor” medicine, only here say. But when a Western doctor
*sees* it work, that makes it worthy of scientific recognition.

Observation is a powerful way to conduct scientific inquiry: apply a
therapy, and see if it work. If it does, try it again in a similar
circumstance and see if it works again. Once enough observations have
been made of a therapy working, then simply recognize the obvious: the
therapy is medicinal.

Conventional Western medicine can take a tragically condescending and
patronizing attitude toward medicinal practices of other cultures. The
article above shows that when African cultural medicines is observed
to actually work, it is co-opted and brought into the Western sphere.
A nice pat on the back is given to the “witch doctors” for having
accidentally found a real medicine, and Western scientists get busy
extracting an active ingredient in the plant so that patents can be
awarded and profits generated. None of those profits, of course, will
likely ever make their way back to those witch doctors.