By: Dalih Sembiring
In the past, Indonesians who felt that they suffered from masuk angin — a condition where one feels feverish and keeps letting out gas — might be told to do something like this: Get a thumb-sized piece of ginger. Peel and then pound it before putting it in a glass of hot water. Add some honey or sugar. Drink up.
Today, the advice has evolved into: Buy [insert one those of ready-to-drink masuk angin tonic brands available in a street candy-and-cigarette stall near you]. Drink up.
A few months ago, a young mother brought her distressed baby, who kept crying from an upset tummy, to my house. My mother quickly went to our backyard, fetched three curcuma leaves, suspended them over a small fire for a while before smearing them with coconut oil. She wrapped the baby’s stomach with them. Baby went to sleep.
A thing with herbs
My mother has a thing with herbs. She always sees if they can fix a health condition before consulting a doctor. She has collected simple traditional healing methods from her mother, aunts, uncles, grandparents, in-laws and relatives throughout her lifetime.
True, we no longer live in a time where every household has a herbal garden. And which modern, working person can be bothered about finding a thumb-sized piece of ginger, a slice of tamarind or a drop of lime to fix a cold or a sore throat?
So let us go beyond that issue and ask ourselves this: What if more complex traditional healing methods and formulas are lost with time?
Twittering Traditional Medicines
One night a friend posted a question on Twitter: Does anyone know what they put in the Karonese Ointment? It’s apparently very popular with the Japanese, who say it’s a great, quick cure for muscular aches. Just rub it on, sleep on it, and when you wake up the pains will be gone.
I happen to be Karonese, an ethnic group from North Sumatra. It is just one of hundreds of ethnic groups in Indonesia with their own traditional medicines and curative methods. That night, the discourse spread, drawing several Karonese Twitter users into the online conversation. They too have heard of the ointment, but none knew for sure what it was made of, until recently.
I found out that the ointment made use of an enzyme extracted from a specific species of bird that was common in my mother’s childhood. The birds can hardly be found nowadays, thanks to environmental changes (and maybe its popularity in traditional medicine?). It may still be found in the deep conservation forests untouched by North Sumatra’s palm oil and paper industries.
A documentary filmmaker told me that during the research and shooting of his latest documentary film on tattoo in Mentawai (a group of islands off the coast of West Sumatera), his team was not able to learn the traditional medicines and healing methods of the indigenous sikerei (shamans)..
“It is very hard [to do] as it is tightly related to their spiritual belief in their ancestors,” he said, suggesting that the knowledge has been well kept as family secrets.
If that is the case, it is probably wise that in order for the art of traditional healing to survive, the least we could do is ensure the education of the younger generation of Indonesia’s indigenous tribes. It is through them that the transcribing and archiving of the knowledge takes place.
Someday some of us may be lucky enough to peek into their secret techniques and ingredients of a healthy life, which could be priceless to the medical and pharmaceutical domains. Meanwhile, it is up to us to make sure that none of the precious ingredients are slowly lost to greed and ignorance, and that the wave of modern life does not swallow up Indonesia’s amazing local wisdoms.