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Plant-words and the transformation of personhood in Masikoro healing practices in Madagascar

Final Report Summary - PLAWOMAD (Plant-words and the transformation of personhood in Masikoro healing practices in Madagascar)

This summary includes a description of the project objectives, a description of the work undertaken since the beginning of the project, and a description of the main results achieved so far, the final results and their potential impact and use.

In Madagascar, extensive research has been done on the subject of medicinal plants, for example by R. Ratsimamanga and P. Boiteau (founders of IMRA), L. Allorge, Z. Rabesa, and E. Rakotobe. While these studies are useful in their way (particularly Boiteau’s dictionary of plant names), they lack the necessary anthropological perspective. My post-doc was used to demonstrate that by adding an analysis of the indigenous uses and knowledge of these same plants, it can be established that what is usually called the “traditional pharmacopeia” is not equivalent to the western concept of a biomedical pharmacopeia. I have shown that this can be demonstrated by applying a combination of approaches from anthropology and the natural sciences to the study of traditional medical treatments (Etkin 1993, Ramamonjisoa 1994, Lefèvre 2008 a, b, c).

The major aim of my research, achieved while in residence at the ISCA, was to address the question of the transformation of the Malagasy “traditional pharmacopoeia”. The study concerned the symbolic importance attached to the use of plants often considered as having effective pharmacological properties.

An assumption – one could say a bias – of most ethnopharmacological literature concerning traditional medicine is that this knowledge has historically been handed down unchanged from generation to generation and that it is now threatened as it comes into contact with Western society. Yet several studies in Madagascar, mine included, have shown that healing practices have long employed not only indigenous species of plants, but also newly introduced ones. My research tenure at the ISCA allowed me to clarify this point. A second misconception about local healing practices is that the pharmacological properties of herbs alone explain their effectiveness in fighting the disease. In Madagascar, however, two types of remedies exist. The first type utilizes plants and animals only for their symbolic value; they tend to be used in small quantities and as a secondary therapy after rituals. The second type of remedy involves plants in the form of teas, or baths of decoctions selected for physiological reasons; they are used in large quantities and assume a major role in the treatment. In short, the idea is that the plants used for symbolic reasons are employed when the disease is serious, requiring the intervention of diviner-healers, while the teas are handled daily by laypeople and for the many ailments of everyday life. My hypothesis has been that this distinction between “symbolic plants” and “pharmacological plants” needs to be questioned and qualified.

The overall results of this work were published in 2013 in a book entitled Médecine traditionnelle à Madagascar: les mots-plantes, Paris: L’Harmattan 2013, 297 pp. A first review was published in the Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford, New Series, Volume VI, no. 1 (2014) pp.109-110. The reviewer has written: “Lefèvre has achieved a difficult task and given us a rigorous, academic, ethnographic study, which is at the same time a highly readable account.”