Reclaiming ancient knowledge to heal India's tribal poor
Carmelite nun uses traditional Adivasi medicine to educate and empower
Carmelite Sister Lissy prepares traditional, effective herbal remedies
Daksha Gamit sits among a group of other women around a silver dish, peeling Indian asparagus in the country's western state of Gujarat.
Married with two teenage children, Gamit will later add the vegetable to a mixture of seeds and sprouts, place them in a carafe and sit the concoction in the sun to ferment.
The brown juice that results – rich in vitamin D and plant hormones – is used to treat eye diseases and infertility.
Among the Adivasi tribe to which Gamit belongs – Adivasis are among India’s first inhabitants – these folk remedies have been produced for centuries.
And for nine years, Gamit has traveled 20 kms once a week from her home village to the town of Unai, where she works at a herbal medicine shop and health clinic run by the Congregation of Carmelite Sisters of Charity Veruna.
Sister Lissy of the Congregation has spent several years studying traditional Adivasi medicine, and in 2003 she began to put her knowledge to use.
She cultivated aloe vera plants and used the viscous juice of the plants’ leaves to stimulate the production of red blood cells. After three months of applications on herself, she saw in tests that red blood cell production increased.
Aloe vera has now become an effective remedy for sickle cell anemia, a hereditary disease that is prominent among Adivasis. The ailment destroys the natural shape of red blood cells and can cause complications that have a high mortality rate.
“If patients start on time to take aloe vera, which stimulates blood production, individuals can live with the disease,” says Sister Lissy.
In addition to helping cure illness, the herbal medicine shop and clinic has become a vital source of income for many in the local Adivasi community.
The facility employs four full-time women and 28 part-time staff, all of whom earn 150 rupees (US$2.50) per day.
“The income helps my family,” says Gamit. "Besides, it is nice work, and I often take products back to my village. Our hair oil, for example, is very popular. It cools the head while working in the fields.”
In the years since she first started, Sister Lissy has added a diverse number of products to her inventory. She’s particularly proud of her wheatgrass juice, which helps wounds heal faster, she says.
Workers prepare a blend of vegetables and herbs for a health tonic
Pineshkumar Gamit, a farmer from Dharampuri village, is a case in point. He was spared an expensive hospital visit that would have ruined him financially.
He sustained a small ankle injury that got infected and quickly progressed to a large proliferating wound. After 27 days of treatment by Sister Lissy, using concentrated wheatgrass juice, the wound finally closed – at a cost of only 700 rupees. At a hospital, the bill would have been several thousand rupees.
Sister Lissy has also set up workshops to pass on her knowledge – not only to local villagers but also to doctors from private hospitals.
The increasingly popular herbalist learned many of her recipes from old Adivasi women.
“The tradition of the Adivasi contains precious knowledge about the effects of many plants,” says Sister Lissy. “But because they pass on their knowledge orally, there is a great risk that this treasured knowledge could be lost.”
In an effort to help keep these traditions alive, the nun has encouraged families to plant and cultivate the medicinal herbs long familiar to their ancestors. Aloe vera plants are even offered for sale at the Congregations clinic for 10 rupees each.
Sister Lissy’s foray into traditional herbal remedies – in addition to being an effort to preserve Adivasi heritage and help those with few resources to afford expensive hospital visits – is a highly personal one.
At the age of 30, the nun fell ill with the virulent falciparum malaria. After delays in treatment, she was required to take a heavy regimen of medications that left her diabetic.
“At that time, I thought to myself that there must be yet another way of treatment,” she says.
She began experimenting with aloe vera treatment, and that led to her study of traditional Adivasi herbal medicine and her work with the local community to educate about these ancient and effective remedies.
“We are all part of nature, so we should try to treat our illnesses with the resources of nature.”
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