Dr Patricio practices indigenous medicine in a small clinic in the Andes. Sometimes he describes himself as a doctor, sometimes as a yachac or shaman. Here, the two are interchangeable. Western and indigenous medicine inform and shape each other.
The clinic in which he practices is called Jambi Huasi, meaning ‘House of Health’ in Kichwa, the local indigenous language. He learnt medicine from his family. His grandmother was a partera or midwife, his aunt was a herbalist and his uncle was a bone setter. His cousin too learnt the trade.
But his cousin no longer practices, for he did not fare well as a yachac. He did not have the necessary defences. For a yachac, one of the main methods of treating patients is through the cleansing of ‘spirits’ either using eggs (limpia huevo) or live guinea-pigs (limpia cuy). “People think when you do a cleansing it is simple,” says Dr Patricio. “But you have to have a lot of concentration and you have to fight. The spirits you are cleansing are powerful and malicious.”
The body is energy, a flow of energy.
Western medicine just looks at the body like a machine.
Yachacs have a screen, a protective shield for defence against the spirits. His cousin did not have one. As Patricio describes it, not having a shield meant he could not “discharge” the energy that was transferred to him from the patient.
He started to hear voices. Strong, recurring, terrifying hallucinations that made him feel hunted. He continued practicing for a while, ignoring the strange characters that filled his reality. He finally sought help from another shaman, who cleansed the energies and restored his sanity. He never worked as a shaman again.
Dr Patricio attributes his cousin’s experiences to a mixture of causes, drawing on both Andean and Eastern philosophy. As well as being unable to discharge the energies from the cleansings, his cousin’s chakras were misaligned, and the connection to the pachamama (Andean mother earth) had been lost. “The body is energy, a flow of energy. Western medicine doesn’t understand that it is energy; it just looks at the body like a machine.”
According to him, mental illness is also due to imbalances in the surroundings. In the Andean belief system, all things have a spirit, even the mountains. If you don’t ask permission before entering the mountains, malicious spirits are thought to enter. Surroundings extend to the people around you too, for example a husband or wife. Treating patients with mental illness often involves treating their family members too. The spirit and the mind are inextricably linked to the environment.
The Andean indigena are proactive when it comes to a family member suffering from a psychiatric illness. “They call it ayahapishka or ‘unbalanced,’ in reference to their energies,” he says. “They take them to the lake to bathe, and to the yachac for cleansing.”
Similar treatments are used for physical illness too. While Western medicine has taken some years to realise the influence of the mind on the body, Andean medicine has long thought of the two as interconnected. As Dr Patricio points out, “When your mind is good, your body is good. Sometimes we just look at the body, but illness is about balance. If you sort out the head you can fix the body.”
For Dr Patricio, Western and Andean medicine ought to be symbiotic: “Andean medicine is kari (male), western medicine is warmi (female). This isn’t understood by the government. Combining both in public programmes would be a great step forward.”
Patricio has succeeded in bringing indigenous medicine
out of the home and into institutional healthcare.
Dr Patricio works hard to maintain the two medical fields side by side. Trained in Andean medicine, he has incorporated Western knowledge and techniques over his years working at Jambi Huasi. But it doesn’t often happen the other way around. “Some Western doctors do try to understand Andean medicine,” he says, ”because it empowers you in a situation where you don’t have the kit – for example we use a herb called ‘sauko’ which has similar properties to aspirin. But most don’t: they view Andean medicine with suspicion.”
“Traditional medicine has been disgraced by those who claim to be healers,” Patricio claims. “They simply do it for the money. Western medicine provides official training and titles, which the government prefers. They ignore the knowledge, particularly in herbs and traditional remedies, that some of the shamans possess.”
But there is plenty of custom for Patricio. His most frequent patients are in not in fact the indigenous Andeans. They are already familiar with many traditional treatments and apply them at home. His most regular customers are Ecuador’s modern citizens, dissatisfied with the poor care in state run healthcare services and keen for new solutions.
So far Patricio has succeeded in bringing indigenous medicine out of the home and into institutional healthcare. But it’s not just in Ecuador that this is happening. Small trans-cultural clinics have sprung up across South America – some like Jambi Huasi, part-funded by the state. Dr Patricio is hopeful that this heralds an important shift in focus towards the needs of indigenous Latin Americans.
Read Part I: The Jambi Huasi Clinic.