In an interview with a Nicaraguan man who moved to Costa Rica when he was fifteen because his father told him to go find work, he told me that Costa Ricans don’t use traditional medicine nearly as much as Nicaraguans. He said that when he first moved here, more people knew about the healing effects of plants. But now they all just use La Caja, the Costa Rican nationalized health system. At dinner with my host brother in San Jose, he told me that he couldn’t believe his father still made him drink lemon tea when he had a sore throat. It was an action reflective of a relic of a dying tradition, and one that he did not seem sorry to see go. On a small farm in Boruca, a woman with no native heritage, but who had married a Borucan man and immersed herself in their culture showed us a book she wrote about traditional uses of plants both in cooking and in medicine. She wrote this book to try to save this knowledge that no one from the younger generations seemed interested in preserving. It seemed, at first, that the youth of Costa Rica has collectively decided to ignore the knowledge of their grandparents in favor of the shining promise of “real” science. Teas and tinctures for white pills and white coats. So if everyone appears to be running away from this burning building, why is it that we are going toward it trying to salvage its remains?
How about we approach this question by trial and error? Attempt number one: the cure for cancer is somewhere in that forest and it’s our job to find the person that knows about it before they die and the plant species before it dies. This answer seems nice at first until you consider that championing indigenous knowledge as your own discovery is not necessarily the most ethical thing to do and that testing the effectiveness of plants against cancer cell lines is a worthy cause, but it simply isn’t what we are doing. Moving right along then to attempt number two: the US needs to return to natural medicine because our synthetic medicines are toxic. I’m never one to knock the safe use of natural or tradition medicines. The real problem with this solution instead lies in the fact that it suggests that the usefulness of traditional knowledge is primarily to satisfy the desires of people from the US, or members of other cultures no longer grounded in their own medicinal traditions.
My faith instead lies in attempt number three: the initial assumption is incorrect and the entire country of Costa Rica is not truly running away from traditional medicine. If you visit any of the biggest and fanciest malls in San Jose, there is a very US consumerism feel to them. Walking down the San Jose streets, there is store after store offering “American styles” and “American imported brands”. As is the case in many foreign countries, especially in the Americas, a major part of the mainstream chic is to dress and act like you are from the US, and the US method, with the exception of a few questionable nutritional supplements, is to avoid traditional medicine. Therefore, when talking to a person from the United States and an outsider, it is no surprise that most Costa Ricans I spoke to seemed to reject that aspect of their culture. So then why is it useful for us to come here? Maybe if we as future medical and public health professionals could understand the culture of traditional medicine and realize that the vast majority of our synthetic medications are based on biological molecules and steer clear of the generalized rejection of all plant-based medicine that is so common in the field in the US, we might change the culture of medicine in the US just a little bit, because the rejection of one’s own culture due to the close mindedness of another is truly a tragedy.
By Michael Rosamilia