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Discovering nature’s pharmacy

Have you ever had the ill-fortune of getting wounded or feeling sick in the most unlikeliest of places, and was at a loss how to cope? TONY MATHIOT, on behalf of the National Heritage Research and Protection Section, offers some examples when a little peasant knowledge can really help.

1natu1917…The two women walk down the mountain trail. The footpath is wide with ruts and roots that require one to be cautious and prudent. Leading from Petite Boileau in the south to Petite Marie Louise in the south east coast, it cuts through a forest of cinnamon. Men have been cutting wood here, for trunks of trees and sawed off branches lay on the ground. Intermittently, the monsoon gusts bring the not unpleasant rancid scent of burning coprah from the kiln down at the Mondon’s Estate. The woman in front is obviously younger than her companion behind her. In fact, they are aunt and niece, residents of Petite Marie Louise. They make the weekly journey to Petite Boileau to visit their relatives there. They habitually return late in the afternoon. Now, as if suddenly aware of the gathering dusk, both women quicken their steps negotiating with the occasional furrow that rivulets of rain had created in the earth, following the course of the path downhill.

Suddenly, the younger woman at the front stumbles and cries out in pain. She moves tottering on her left foot as she winces in agony. The other woman who is her aunt catches up with her, putting her arm around her waist to support her.

“ I think I’ve sprained my foot. I won’t be able to walk any further,” she tells her aunt, who guides her to lean against a large rock boulder.

They have arrived at the last stretch of downward slope leading to the coconut estate. The place is coarsely overgrown with a variety of grass, weeds and plants. Sounds and shouts from the plantation below are audible. The girl makes an effort to massage her injured right foot. No ligament or tissues have been torn, but there is pain and tenderness around the joint. She turned her foot unexpectedly.

Her aunt, who is in her late 30s, knows exactly what to do. She has inherited much invaluable knowledge of medicinal plants from her parents who were born before the great L’Avalasse of 1862. In a matter of minutes, she has uprooted a handful of pat depoul grass (Goose grass) among the other plants. She places it on a flat rock and, with a stone, she beats and crushes the bunch of grass into a lumpy oozing poultice. She tears off a ribbon of cloth from her long crepe de chine dress and carefully she spread the poultice on it. She carries her “temporary expedient” over to the girl who is moaning and rubbing her sprain.  She wraps the poultice over the sprain and secures it firmly with a knot.

“This will reduce the pain,” she murmurs soothingly as her niece flinches from the pressure of the bandage on her ankle.

1920… The man works energetically, cutting away at the clumps of shrubs with a heavy machete. He has 10 gaulette of land to clear (about 110 f2natueet) for the extension of the vanilla plantation. Last year’s harvest had been excellent and lucrative. Like other vanilla estate owners, his master is eager to capitalise on the demand for the export market. Therefore, a hundred more vanilla plants will increase his revenue. Suddenly, a sharp piece of split shrub wood rubs against his right elbow, making a deep nasty cut. The man drops his machete, and examines his wound. It is bleeding rather profusely. And the sweat makes it smart. He rubs the wound, smearing blood all over his elbow. It’s a small but slightly deep incision. He walks towards a short coconut palm nearby. Taking out a penknife from his pocket, he begins to scrape what seems like sawdust, the powdery matter from the base of the leaf stalk where it is attached to the tree trunk. He takes pinch by pinch of the brown dust and rubs it into the bleeding cut. Amazingly enough, in a matter of seconds, the bleeding stops. That’s because the dusts works like an absorbent agent. Heaven bless the one who discovered that wonder!

1925…. The elderly man trudges slowly through the woods. At 74 he is still robustly healthy and strong, having been in muscular employment for all his life. However, age comes with its infirmities of health, sooner or later. And lately, for the last couple of weeks or so, he’s been getting some nasty pain in his joints, especially in his left knee. The pain is threatening to restrain the physical exertion that he does during the course of a normal day. It bothers him. Labouring under the prospect of not being able to go out on the reef to lay and remove his fish trap, or to work on his small plantation, or to walk up the mountain trail from Baie Napoleon (Petite Anse) up to the hinterlands of Baie Lazare is making him miserable. So, he is actually in search of a well-known remedy. And there they are, those shrubs of Bwa torti (Indian Mulberry Tree) growing near the orange tree that will soon be laden with fruits, by the amount of fragrant white flowers that are attracting honey bees. Old Polixene plucks a handful of the Bwa torti leaves and drops them in the Vacoa bag that he is carrying. Then, slowly he makes his way back to the large granite rock with a flat surface upon which he settles himself. He winces with pain as he rests in a squatting position on the rock. He places the Bwa torti leaves on the rock. He removes a bottle of water from his vacoa bag, pulls out the cork and pours a little water over the leaves, shuffling them as he does so. He always keeps a bottle of coconut oil in his bag for him to rub on his skin when he goes out in the sea to remove his fish trap. It alleviates sunburn. Now he pours a few drops of coconut oil over the leaves. With a piece of cloth he makes a cataplasm which he wraps over his left knee, the part of his body where the ache is more painful. He winces again as he pulls himself up in an upright position in order to tie up the cataplasm in place. And then, old Polixene steps down from the rock surface to assume a leaning posture against the rock. He begins to remove leaf blades from mid ribs of coconuts, a pile of which he had collected earlier in the morning. He will be doing this for the next hour or so, as he waits for the morning tide to recede so that he can go and remove his fish trap. And also for the Bwa torti remedy to bring some relief to his arthriticknee, which it will about in half an hour’s time. Maybe next week, he will travel by pirogue to L’Etablissement to see that Irish fellow called Dr. Bradley. He is the Chief Medical Officer at the large new hospital that has just opened there last year. Maybe.

3natu“Anyhow, what better medication than what I have, will he give me for my aching bones?” wonders old Polixene as his penknife cuts along another midrib.

But of course, in 90 years’ time, old Polixene’s grand children, when arthritis or rheumatism set in, will find solace in Diclofenac gel, Arnicare Gel, Dencorub and a dozen of other pharmaceutical products yet to be invented.

2017… The four hikers have finally arrived in the upper Woodlands of Mare aux Cochons after ascending the paved trail all the way from the Le Niol waterworks. It’s a hot and sunny September- Saturday morning with an occasional breeze to mitigate the sweltering heat. The trail meanders through a pandanus forest that forms part of the Morne Seychellois National Park and it is absolutely resplendent. The boys and girls quench their thirst from the gurgling stream and take photos with their cellphones, and send instagrams to friends. They are really enjoying the happiness of youth. They are feeling great. Well, except for Mirenda. During the last half an hour she’s been having a terrible toothache, a constant throbbing pain that seems to reverberate in one of her premolars. It feels like an abscess, or maybe it can be decay that has penetrated the enamel of the tooth. She doesn’t want to complain but it’s hurting really bad. She hates to spoil the fun but she cannot keep quiet any longer.

“What a pity, and the dental clinic won’t be open until Monday, Mi ?” Says Vicky in despair, “I can imagine the pain you are feeling.”

It is the eldest among them, Brian who offers some hope. “It is said that if you bite on a clove, it relieves your toothache,” he says.

“Well, ok for that”, says the other boy, Mark. “But where do we get cloves here?” he asks, as if dumbfounded.

“Before we arrive at the Marsh, before we come to the second kiosk in the open grassland, we have to pass through a forest of clove trees,” he informs them.

Indeed, Brian is correct. There are the large and tall clove trees that the Catholic Mission planted sometime in the early 1900s. Some thirty cloves trees in all. Twice a year, these trees produce hundreds of clusters of cloves, most of which scatter on the ground to rot away. Today, for Mirenda’s sake, luck is with them. Some last few remnants of this year’s crops have just fallen. The four hikers crouch down to collect the red aromatic unopened flower buds.

“Now just insert one into the gap near the tooth that is hurting,” instructs Brian. “You can even bite on it”.

Mirenda seems reluctant. “Guys, the pain is terrible!”

“Come on,” her friends goad her. “Come on!”.

And it’s almost divinely magical! Sublimely analgesic! That’s because the chief constituent of clove is eugenol oil which is used in dental clinics all over the world. The pharmaceutical world is yet to discover a more effective medicament for one of the most excruciating pain ever-odontalgia. For the time being it is eugenol, which is extracted from our biblical spice, zerof, clove (Eugenia caryophyllata). It was brought to Seychelles in 1772 at the recommendation of a French naturalist and administrator of Mauritius and Reunion, Pierre Poivre (1719-1786).                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         So, if you ever happen to get an injury, or suffer from indisposition and you are up in the forested hills, not anywhere near any modern medical facilities, a rudimentary knowledge of the medicinal properties of our local plants could provide you with that crucially urgent “First-Aid”.

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