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We often look to other continents and cultures for time-tested remedies for health and wellbeing. Health care practices known to have worked for indigenous peoples for centuries can be incredibly effective when modified for the modern Western patient, especially in treating persistent health issues including stress, depression, weight problems and chronic pain.
Ancient healing techniques from China and India have become increasingly accepted forms of medicine in modern societies. Massage, acupuncture, yoga, herbal remedies and a multitude of mind-body practices are fully recognised stand-alone treatments and have been successfully integrated into allopathic prescriptions for health care.
WHAT SOME AFRICANS HAVE ALWAYS KNOWN
Less familiar to modern societies are the ancient healing practices of Africa. Unfortunately, there is a perception that these practices are synonymous with voodoo or witchdoctors. In all health care practices, both ancient and modern, there are ‘snake oil peddlers’ and those who are in the profession for reasons other than helping others. And when it comes to the knowledge and practice of mind-body-spirit medicine by indigenous peoples in Africa, a lot got lost in the translation.
Interestingly, many people today are now seeking the knowledge that people of the Dagara, Igbo, San, Tswana, Maasai and countless other cultures have had for centuries – that at the root of almost all illness is a misalignment and/or separation of the mind-body-spirit connection.
I have been apprenticed to Maasai healers in Tanzania for over 10 years. The Maasai of East Africa have a long and rich culture and healing tradition. They are most well known for their semi-nomadic pastoral lifestyle; a strong and proud people who herd cattle and subsist on a diet of milk and meat. Less well-known is their vast apothecary of plant-based medicine and mind-body healing practices that have traditionally kept their people amazingly well in the challenging and often harsh habitat of the African savannah.
Like many African healing traditions, Maasai medicine is entirely integrated with the natural surroundings, ritual, and in-depth interaction with herbal and spiritual healers. Before a patient is given any medicine in the form of plants, herbs or a prescription for behavioural change, traditional healers work to identify the root cause of the concern or ailment and integrate the remedy into a process infused with nature and ritual. The individual psyche and its holistic connection to the physical body is healed by addressing the relationship with nature and community, combined with the less visible world of the spirit.
OLPUL, A MAASAI SPA
Going off on olpul in Maasai culture is the ultimate experience of renewal and rejuvenation. In many ways it is akin to a modern spa retreat, in that participants go to a sacred place in the forest and cut themselves off from the outside world. Typically you cleanse your body before you go to the forest and concentrate on building strength while you are deep in the womb of Mother Nature.
During an olpul, a group of Maasai people come together to experience the cleansing effects of living off the environment. They sleep within natural enclosures and prepare a healing soup containing plant medicines and meat. For warriors, olpul is a ritual that allows them to reap perceived benefits of the forest – spiritual power, wildness and physical strength. Other Maasai, from young children to older men and women, attend with the intention of re-building their bodies before and after major life-crisis events, or for the general maintenance of physical health and wellbeing.
During a traditional olpul, the Maasai stay in their sacred forest retreat for days, even up to a month or more. You sleep when you need to sleep, eat when you are hungry and sing and dance together. Sharing and storytelling help heal psychological misunderstandings and disconnections and facilitate a general bonding that restores the soul. When Maasai people come off an olpul they are strong, very healthy and active and ready to take on the world.
You don’t have to live in a Maasai village to experience the benefits of this approach to health and wellbeing. An olpul experience can be created anywhere in the world that has the key elements of a pristine and sacred natural environment, nourishing and strength-giving food, and ideally a group of your people to share the experience. Planning and preparation are very important, as is having a support network of other people who know you are on olpul, take on your responsibilities while you are away, and prepare for welcoming you back home.
TIME FOR AFRICA TO TEACH THE WORLD
The Maasai have a profoundly simple and highly effective philosophy and associated prescriptions for maintaining peace in the community, supporting individuals’ gifted purpose while on earth, preventing disease, and curing many illnesses. While most of us live very differently from traditional African cultures, there are some amazing gems of wisdom in what our ancestors and elders have always known that can be harvested and used for the benefit of today’s lifestyles. In truth, when it comes to powerful, insightful wisdom for managing stress, improving relationships and living healthy lives, we have only to look to the African continent for practices that have stood the test of time.
If what I have learnt from the Maasai, San and Igbo people is any indication of the rich wisdom of the indigenous peoples on the continent, there is no reason why elements of traditional African medicine should not take the stage with the now well-known elements of traditional Indian and Chinese medicine. It is a matter of articulating the techniques with integrity and interpreting them for patients in Africa and around the world.
If you are interested in experiencing olpul and other healing rituals in Maasailand in Tanzania as part of a Healing Safari, contact
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