Traditional medicine and how it is relevant in 21st century Papua New Guinea

Our  planet is filled with millions of plants with healing properties – some of which we are only starting to know. Traditional healers and elders in our many cultures  are custodians of a lot of  that knowledge.  

From my maternal grandparents,  I learned a lot  about the healing properties of guava leaves, hibiscus, native gingers and cinnamon bark.  

But healing was not just about the treatment of  physical illness  or  medicinal plants.   The generation that went before  had a holistic approach to treating a person or child who was ill.

We now know, from years of modern scientific research, that the state of the human  mind has a direct influence on one’s physical health and that children heal quicker when they are with people who love them.

How did our ancestors know that the psychological and emotional state of being was as important as the physical?

In mother’s village, years ago, we passed by a child who was sick and vomiting on veranda of a house.  My  grandmother asked the child’s grandfather why she was sick. The discussion revolved around the absence of the child’s mother. 

The grandfather said, she (the child) used to be happy and healthy until his mother left her to remarry.  While they understood that the physical illness could be treated, they also knew  it would be difficult to treat the child’s unhappiness that stemmed from her mother’s absence.

In Goroka, I was sent off regularly to look for a collection of medicinal plants  which my grandmother used to treat infertility in women.  After  the herbs were put together, the women were always  given strict instructions to be kind  to their husbands, to treat them with respect and heal their relationships.

Many of the couples she helped had children thereafter.

Were the herbs just placebos?  I don’t know.  But we do know that placebos are used in modern practice as well.

How did the ancients come to lean about its psychological effects?

Years later, I came to realize that her ‘treatment’ of the infertility didn’t just rely on the herbs she gave. She also taught them how to build and strengthen their relationships with their husbands and their in-laws.

She wasn’t just treating the physical problem. She was also helping a young couple deal with the emotional and relationship issues they may have had.

In a traditional society, those relationships were essential for cohesion and for the health of children.

Only after I became a dad that I came to realize  of the importance of happiness in a family. I found that my children healed faster when I was calmer and determined to see them heal. 

They became sick during our temporary physical and emotional absence.

After our  youngest daughter contracted TB from the daycare she attended, her condition deteriorated rapidly.  Our family was in transition with me in Madang and my wife and our girls in Port Moresby. 

When I got to Port Moresby, she wasn’t doing well. I was worried.

I remembered what my parents used to tell me about the healing abilities of a happy mind or the willingness  to be happy.

I knew that my daughter was looking forward to moving to Madang because of the sea.  I held her in my arms and said to her: “You have to get better because we are going to Madang. You get to play in the sea every day.”

I literally saw her face light up despite her difficulty in breathing. 

Within 24 hours, she was able to get up. Her body responded to the medication overnight and within 36 hours, we were on a flight to Madang.

I learned over time to trust ancient wisdom.


2 comments on “Traditional medicine and how it is relevant in 21st century Papua New Guinea

  1. Abraham Keple

    Bro it’s very true that our planet is yet to be fully discovered.
    PNG is a sea of blue when it comes to natural surroundings. It’s always a win-win case if we tap into our untouched boundaries. Our plants and environment are of sleeping million dollar business.
    To cut long story strong short, I did my master paper on the use of use complementary and alternative medicine among the pregnant mother’s at the 3 mile Susu Mama clinic.
    The result shows many are still using traditional medicine, for healing, pain relief, leisure and etc…
    I have to stop here but I like your article. Government of the day should look into it if there is a way.



  2. Traditional medicine has been tried and tested over generations by our people. It definitely has a place in our society. One thing I’m uneasy about is the documenting process that does not seem to acknowledge our people.


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