As a Community Health Volunteer, I spend a lot of time talking about health and listening to various health statements by my community. It means I hear of a wide variety of illnesses and maladies. The belief in leaf or kastom medicine is strong and the church still supports devils and exorcisms. Western medicine is a new thing and not well proved for some of the illnesses that have been around forever. They do immunize their children, when the immunizations are available, and they know the signs of malaria and that it is best treated with Coartem. Germ theory hasn’t really gotten here and spreading sickness through coughing and dirty water or food is only sort of understood. Instead, there are dozens of other ways of getting sick and sicknesses that can happen.
The main way to get sick is “strong work.” Working too hard kills. Alexandra and I have talked about this a lot. We think one of the things that is happening is that in this hot, humid environment, people sweat a lot. When you work hard, you sweat even more and after several days of that, you are likely dehydrated. No one here drinks water, at least not water by itself. They will drink green coconuts or tea, but water from the tap is not really done. It makes sense if you look at the number of waterborne pathogens, but doesn’t help with dehydration. So, around here, when you are told not to work too hard, they mean “don’t die.”
The second way to get sick is not eating enough or at the right time of day. Though this is true in a wider sense, for them they mean that if someone skips lunch, they run the risk of cancer. On the other hand, the idea of eating a balanced meal really doesn’t exist. So, though there is plenty of food, there is still wide-spread malnutrition.
There is a sick that can only happen to men where the man’s penis and balls crawl back up inside him because the “strings” in his belly are too tight. (“String” is the Bislama word for veins, nerves, ligaments, tendons and any other string-like part of internal organs.) There is leaf for this which has to be administered in the first twenty-four hours or he will die. It happened in my village.
A purely female illness happened to my auntie who is breastfeeding. Her breast lactates constantly, despite regular breastfeeding. She bathes regularly but in this environment, things just grow. Her nipple grew mold. She has been trying to get rid of it for the better part of two months now, to no avail. Every time her breast dries up, she starts breastfeeding on that side again and it comes back. She is currently breastfeeding on one side and giving her 6-month-old some solid food to make up for the lack.
There is the “devil’s sick” where a devil catches someone. There are a few different kinds of devils. The first requires bathing in holy water or a prayer circle. That would be the devils that the Catholics brought with them. I’m still not clear if these devils were around before Catholicism and they didn’t have a name or if they were brought by the Catholics or just appeared when people learned what they are. These devils make people “talk crazy” and “fall down.” It sounds a lot like a TIA or small stroke to me.
There are devils that were here before the church. Those devils can make people talk crazy and fall down, too, but often they make children not sleep at night or give nightmares. The best cure for them seems to be bathing in special leaf. Each devil has a different kind of leaf to be bathed in, which means the kleva, kastom healer, has to know what devil it is that is following the child. A subgroup of that devil is the one that does bad things to anyone, but particularly to pregnant women. A pregnant woman who sees the devil or hears his bells will give birth to a white baby. This also happened in my village, and there are three semi-albino kids. Go figure.
Along with the religious afflictions, there is the chance that God will get mad at you for not being sufficiently religious and turn your fetus into a snake. The cure for that is leaf to kill the snake and miscarry.
Toothaches and rotten teeth are common. Most adults here are missing some number of teeth. For some reason, women in particular seem to be missing their two front teeth. There is leaf to take for toothaches, at least one of which is ginger. I think the number of toothaches is related to using sugar cane as a toothbrush, but I’m not a dental hygienist so I can only conjecture.
It seems like the number of illnesses are related to a lack of coherent knowledge about how sickness are passed. I realize that part of my work as a health volunteer is to combat this and try to improve their understanding of the human body. I am all in favor of that. Yet, somehow I feel like I am taking away from the richness of the culture by telling them that it isn’t a devil, he is having a stroke or a heart attack. That doesn’t mean I won’t do it, partly because I don’t see them believing that there aren’t devils any time in the near future.