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Des sources du savoir aux médicaments du futur

Jacques Fleurentin
Jean-Marie Pelt
Guy Mazars

2. Élaboration des pharmacopées

Transmission of knowledge and modernity in French Guyana: is traditional knowledge condemned?

Marie Fleury


The Maroon Blacks aluku (Boni), descendants of the slaves who escaped the Dutch plantations in the xviii century, live at present along Maroni river in French Guyana. Their therapeutic system, far from being inspired by the shamanism of the neighbouring Amerindians, plunges its roots in Africa, and gives proof of a large capacity of creation, invention and adaptation in a new context. During the previous two centuries, the pharmacopoeia built up itself, enriched and passed on from generation to generation. But, presently one senses certain retention from the Elders to deliver their knowledge, and the young people are complaining that they no longer have access to traditional knowledge.
To try to understand the reasons of this evolution, we shall begin by defining what is a pharmacopoeia, in the traditional context, and especially, to which type of power it gives access. We shall compare the traditional mode of transmission with that of the western school system, and shall look in which extent there is compatibility between traditional knowledge and modern knowledge. Finally, we shall see that if traditional knowledge is condemned, it is not so much in his content, than in his mode of creation and distribution. It is the sociocultural context that gives them a meaning, and the possibility of expression; if this one is weakened, it is in his reasons for existing that traditional knowledge is threatened.

Texte intégral

1The Maroon Blacks Aluku are one of the numerous cultural groups living in French Guyana. Deported from Africa during the slave trade to work in Dutch plantations in Surinam, their ancestors ran away to the forest to escape slavery. In 1776, as they were hunted down by the Dutch, they crossed the river Maroni and reached French Guyana, then they gradually went upstream that border river. There they met the Wayana, who were Karib Amerindians migrating from Brazil.

Birth of a pharmacopoeia

  • 1 For instance plants from African origin (Oryza glaberrima, Abelmoschus esculentus, Aframomum meleg (...)
  • 2 Often species of a same botanical gender.

2How did those men and women, newly come from Africa, or born in the plantations, build up a new way of life, a new society, but also a new pharmacopoeia and a new care system? Of course they were been inspired by the neighbouring Amerindians, particularly as far as material life, hunting, fishing, slash-and-burn agriculture are concerned, but they have always kept an "African background"1. As far as pharmacopoeia is concerned, our - current - comparative survey between the Aluku and Wayana societies shows that though there had been remedy exchanges, the two care systems are totally different. Maroon Blacks knowledge about plants, plunges its roots in Africa and several important plants in their pharmacopoeia have equivalents on the African continent2 (especially in Western Africa) often with similar use. For instance, it is the case with diverse species of Costus which are plants often used in Ivory Coast as magic plants in order to protect people and villages from spirits and illness (Bouquet and Debray, 1974). In Guyana the plants are very important for the Maroon Blacks because they are considered as part of the very first plants created by Masa Gadu, the Supreme God. They are, among others, used in baths to favour good luck and remove witchcraft effects (Fleury, 1991).

3Then you have the example of Psychotria, which in Ivory Coast goes into preparations meant for removing spirits or illnesses (Bouquet and Debray, 1974). In Guyana, several Psychotria species (Psychotria poeppigiana, P. violacea) are used in baths to calm down Kantaasi - a god living in termites nest - in particular when a termites nest has been destroyed by burning a plot of cultivation.

4We also can mention Eclipta prostata, known in Ivory Coast as a healing plant and a protector against evil spells (Haxaire, 1996). Maroons use this plant to treat cuts, but also in a very important magic remedy (obia) called man menge obia which is supposed to protect the body and make it invulnerable to weapons (Fleury, 1991). This example shows perfectly that medicinal use and magic- religious use are sometimes linked together, which proves that there is no drastic dichotomy between different types of remedies (medicinal or magic ones, curative or preventive ones).

5However, it should be noted that a lot of American plants have no African equivalent. But Maroon pharmacopoeia, far from being inspired by the neighbouring Amerindian shamanism, is innovative and turns out to be original, revealing the considerable creativity and adaptability of these communities. Thus we reported, in our surveys, not less than 278 plants for medicinal use.

6So, we shall now study the knowledge linked to therapeutic practice and pharmacopoeia, built up and developed by Maroon Blacks during the two previous centuries, and the way it is passed down.

7Actually, two types of knowledge can be distinguished between:

  • popular knowledge, open knowledge, that everyone knows, which can be transmitted quite freely and fluidly between the various holders. These are remedies for everyday pain, fever, headaches, spots..., remedies that mothers give to their children. And it is for those popular, and often symptomatic remedies, that other pharmacopoeias are borrowed from;
  • but there is another kind of knowledge, much more closed and hidden, held by some people only. There are different ways to transmit this knowledge, either learning, or inheritance, or inspiration or dreaming, or possession and control of responsible spirits. Learning this last technique is long and enables the learner to become an obiaman (medicine man), who is a medium enabling spirits and men to communicate. The transmission of this knowledge is therefore individual, it is usually done from master to pupil, or from an ancestor, or a god to a man. It only regards some Elect, who shall in turn possess this knowledge. We have already seen that individuals, without being a medium (obiaman), may also know some obia (remedies) that they would only transmit to a few people of their choosing, generally people from their lineage (the Aluku society is a matrilineal society). Far from being universal, this knowledge is rather parcelled out, divided up and unequally distributed among the members of the society.

The transmission of therapeutic knowledge faced with modernity

8The Aluku society is currently experiencing a fast "westernisation" of its way of life, which calls into question the old ways of transmitting traditional knowledge. Young people are complaining that the Elders do not want to pass down their knowledge anymore. "The Elders are too harsh. A man suffering a grave disease the remedy of which he knew, chose to die rather than pass its secret down to his son". This example, often mentioned, reveals that the Young really do not understand the silence of the Elders.

9To understand why knowledge is withheld it is important to specify that pharmacopoeia is a set of therapies that make it possible not only to treat symptoms, illnesses, pathological disorders, but also to repair the socio-cosmic disorder behind that pathological disorder. Actually, a disease is seldom natural in the Aluku system, it does not happen by accident. Of course treating the symptoms and the effects of the disease is important, but treating the very cause of it, generally located beyond the material world, is essential. For example, breaking a taboo may make some ancestors or gods angry, and lead them to send bad luck, illness or death as a revenge. The knowledge linked to this possibility to re-establish the order of things, far from being a secular knowledge, plays a real part in the relationships with the Gods and the Ancestors. This knowledge is therefore linked to an important and dangerous power, since the one who is able to re-establish order is also able to create disorder.

10This knowledge is often held by the Elders who do not transmit it generously. Indeed, by sharing their knowledge, they lose influence over the other members of the society. Moreover, the Young, unlike the Elders, have all been sent to school and have learnt another kinds of knowledge, knowledge from the Whites, from the west. Which power makes it possible to know the aggregation of those two kinds of knowledge? Some young people claim they know the two types of knowledge (traditional and modern) and think they are superior to the others. But, if it was the case, if the Young knew more things and thus became more power than the Elders, the very order of the society would be threatened. Actually, it seldom happens, as we shall see below.

11Other reasons may explain current issues. The young people who complain that the Elders are unwilling to transmit knowledge, have been used to a new way of transmission at school: not only is knowledge offered for free, but getting it is even compulsory. Getting knowledge is worthy and awarded (medals, degrees...). But, the traditional system is the opposite of that, you have to deserve knowledge. Only after showing certain qualities, you can get knowledge. Knowledge itself is the reward for obeying social standards. Thus we easily understand why the Young are disconcerted in front of traditional transmission modes.

12If we see things from the Elders’ point of view, another kind of explanation arises about the withholding of knowledge: "young people do not live in harmony with tradition anymore, they refuse to abide by the often strict requirements linked to the use of therapies, such as food bans or sexual abstinence for example...". In other words, they are not prepared to receive traditional knowledge anymore.

13It is the same thing for possession rituals which happen less and less often. Men and women do not want anymore to keep in touch with the spirits, which sometimes takes a lot of time and effort, and avoid any situation likely to cause a possession crisis. If the spirit wishes to show up, one should even try to calm it down, by the use of plant decoctions instead of getting into a trance, in order to try to control it and take advantage of it (learning remedies...).

  • 3 However some people, especially in cities, set up traditional medicine surgery and have exorbitant (...)

14We have to specify that more and more people now earn a salary, and have no time, and no longer want to devote themselves to traditional medicine, which is not economically profitable3. In addition to that there is a rise of many religious practices (Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists...) which categorically prohibit traditional beliefs and practices.

15In other words, it is more and more difficult for traditional practice to carve out a place in modern life.

Is "traditional knowledge" compatible with "modern knowledge"?

16Are the younger generations able to learn a kind of knowledge referring to a thinking system totally different from the one they are taught at school? "To educate someone", P. Meirieu (1999: 32) tells us, "means integrating him into a society, i.e. teaching him to obey the rules imposed by that society in order to succeed in life". But young people provided with schooling end up at the meeting point between two kinds of society: western modern society and Aluku society with its peculiar rules and principles. And they have difficulty in placing themselves in relation to the one and the other.

17Thus they sometimes criticise tradition and adopt a modernist attitude saying: "anyway, I do not believe in it...". However it is common to see those young people, "who do not believe in traditional pharmacopoeia", resort to it in case of crisis, calamity or serious problems. Thus, beyond the generational conflict and the fact that young people want to distinguish themselves from the Elders and their tradition, as soon as they are in a situation of crisis or pain, the question of the meaning of that pain arises: "why me?". Only traditional medicine makes it possible to answer it. "A symptom", as Tobie Nathan says (1994: 124), "is a text without a context". If western drugs are said to be very efficient for the symptoms of the illness, they cannot explain the deeper causes of the illness. Only a specialist of tradition, an obiaman for example, would be able to discover the context of the illness and be able to know which social or cosmic disorder is behind the illness.

18Yet, from the tradition’s point of view, there is no major incompatibility between bio-medicine and the Aluku therapeutic system. Indeed, traditional pharmacopoeia is always ready to integrate new remedies into its therapeutic paraphernalia. But they are given a specific position, where all remedies borrowed from other forms of medicine are integrated into, i.e. the position of popular remedies, which have effects only on the symptoms of the illness.

19This may explain the fact that patients can and generally do undergo both of the therapies.

Is traditional knowledge condemned?

20We have seen before that traditional pharmacopoeia and bio-medicine are not opposed in their contents but rather in the way they consider the individual. For western medicine, the individual is a biological being, deprived of any social context, while for tradition, the individual is part of society and the cosmos. This individual’s social and cultural dimension gives the illness a meaning, and enables the treatment to be therapeutically efficient.

  • 4 Vernon refers to a tendancy currently growing in importance among the Ndjuka, which consists for s (...)

21The crisis currently being undergone by traditional knowledge seems essentially to affect the transmission of this knowledge and is due to the Elders withholding knowledge and to the Young unwilling to obey the underlying rules. In fact the arising problem is more a social problem than an actual loss of knowledge. Indeed, according to the Aluku tradition, transmitting knowledge is not only related to living beings. We have seen that the Ancestors, and the Spirits, can transmit knowledge, give the compound of a remedy to any person of their choosing via dreams or trance. The Elders do not have to fear a total loss of knowledge, even if they refuse to pass down knowledge in their lifetime4. Thus, saving knowledge in books, corresponds to a western view, linked itself to a written tradition. Writing down knowledge is not enough to save traditional knowledge if it has no possibility to express itself. Actually this knowledge can only work if it finds in the field the means to express itself, be transmitted and even be renewed, otherwise it will be condemned. The current malaise undergone by the Aluku society, linked with its growing integration into the western society, the weakening of customary power and the crumbling of social coherence are factors weakening the traditional therapeutic system and making it meaningless.

22So the content of knowledge is less threatened than the conditions of its practice, transmission and even continuous reinvention. The position of the traditional therapeutic system within modern society should be reconsidered to give those traditions a chance to express themselves through the next generations.



BOUQUET A., DEBRAY M. (1974) Plantes médicinales de la Côte d’ivoire, Paris, ORSTOM, n° 32, 231 p. (Travaux et Documents)

FLEURY M. (1991) "Busi-Nenge" les Hommes-Forêt. Essai d’Ethnobotanique chez les Aluku (Boni) en Guyane française, Paris, Thèse présentée pour obtenir le titre de Docteur de l’Université Paris 6, 357 p.

FLEURY M. (1996) Plantes alimentaires et identité culturelle chez les Marrons Boni (Aluku) de Guyane française in l’Alimentation en forêt tropicale. Interactions bioculturelles et perspectives de développement, Hladik C.M. et al. éd., Paris, Unesco MAB, 2 vol., 973 - 984. (L’homme et la biosphère)

HAXAIRE C. (1996) Thérapeutique préventive de l’amaigrissement des nou- veaux-nés chez les Gouro de Côte-d’Ivoire: variabilités et dérives, in Médicaments et aliments: L’approche ethnopharmacologique, Ekkehard Schröder, Guy Balansard, Pierre Cabalion, Jacques Fleurentin, Guy Mazars (éds), Paris - Metz, ORSTOM Editions - Société Française d’Ethnopharmacologie, 68-86. (Collection Colloques et Séminaires)

MEIRIEU P. (1999) Apprendre... oui, mais comment?, Paris, ESF Editeur, 192 p. (Pédagogies, outils)

NATHAN T. (1994) L’influence qui guérit, Paris, Éditions Odile Jacob, 350 p.

VERNON D. (1987) Payer n’est pas mourir. Le sens des prestations dans une médecine traditionnelle, D.E.A. d’Anthropologie, Paris, EHESS, 300 p.


1 For instance plants from African origin (Oryza glaberrima, Abelmoschus esculentus, Aframomum melegueta..) not available in Amerindian garden can be seen in garden of Maroons Blacks.

2 Often species of a same botanical gender.

3 However some people, especially in cities, set up traditional medicine surgery and have exorbitant prices. But if there is a actual payment (in kind or in cash), in traditional medicine, you pay in case of healing and not to get treatments (for the concept of payment, see Vernon, 1987).

4 Vernon refers to a tendancy currently growing in importance among the Ndjuka, which consists for some Elders to keep some secrets beyond the grave in order to reinforce their image of ancestor, ensure the continuous depedency of their offspring and increase the regret linked to their death.


Laboratoire d’Ethnobiologie-Biogéographie, Muséum national d’histoire naturelle 57, rue Cuvier 75005 Paris - France

© IRD Éditions, 2002

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