Monash University

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Raising the dust : exploring traditional medicine in a changing context

posted on 2017-02-22, 02:38 authored by Jones, Theresa Margaret
Abstract Traditional medicine has become an international commodity. The core principle of holistic health has generated an explosion of interest in the area of ‘mind, body, spirit’ medicine and an accompanying demand for natural compounds. However, this popularity has created its own problems. The high demand for natural medicines has threatened plant populations on which it depends and has exacerbated existing pressures on local communities challenged by poverty, increasing population, deforestation, mono-culture agricultural practices and other human/nature conflict. Just as concerning is the fact that the very principles that have contributed to traditional medicine’s popularity – its dependence on the natural – are further threatened by the fact that with commodification, traditional medicine has taken on the spectre of western medicines by being marketed in bottles and pills. Certainly the additional public interest in traditional medicine has produced a growing body of research promoting its potential benefits in promoting health and wellbeing. Most of this literature has tended to overlook the place of traditional medicine in the village context, how it links with the beliefs and daily practices of the people or the relationships between the local environment and the growing demands for herbal medicines and other natural products. The present study seeks to understand traditional medicine by exploring the relationships between people, plants and the places they inhabit by speaking with traditional healers in the southern African region. In particular, the study explores the ways in which everyday knowledge, practices and beliefs enhance understanding of the links between human and ecological health in a rapidly changing world. The study was undertaken in the Mulanje Mountain Biosphere Reserve in the south of Malawi, a small, poor, landlocked, agricultural country, struggling to meet the health needs of the majority of its growing population, particularly those living in rural areas. The data for this study was generated principally using the methods of participant observation and semi-structured interviewing. The ethnographic methods employed facilitated the establishment of ethical research relationships and provided the framework for interpretation. The present study seeks to demystify traditional medicine as abstract knowledge, by showing that it is best understood as part of the everyday knowledge, practices and beliefs of ordinary village people. The study found that in the case of the Malawian traditional healers, traditional medicine is more than a ‘mind, body, spirit’ approach; it is also an ‘earth’ based healing, indelibly connected with the ordinary lives of villagers in their home environments. The ecological significance of traditional medicine has so far been undervalued by endeavours aimed at integrating traditional village practices into western style public health systems that simultaneously seek to promote commercially produced ‘alternative’ health and wellbeing products and services to the industrialised market. This study shows that if traditional medicine is a living, breathing, earth-based system of healing, then the state of the environment may well be a significant factor in maintaining health and wellbeing. The study suggests that in addition to contributing to a more positive state of health and wellbeing, the earth based aspects of traditional medicine could also have long-term benefits for achieving more balanced, harmonious and sustainable relationships with the natural environment.


Principal supervisor

Debra Manning

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Applied Media and Social Science


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts