Woman-Piaba Tells Her Story
By Chelsea Fung
Chelsea Fung recently completed her BA degree in Environmental Studies and Women and Gender Studies at the University of Toronto.
During my last semester at the University of Toronto, I decided to enrol in a course taught by Professor M Jacqui Alexander, a renowned Trinidadian author and feminist. The journey of writing a book for the course, Migrations of the Sacred, evolved into a transformative experience for my own consciousness as my research on just one plant, the woman-piaba, led to many revelations about my ancestral histories, cultural traditions and ultimately revealed another avenue of thinking.
I have lived the majority of my life in Guyana. I was born in England, and I have lived in Toronto for the past four years, gaining what many would perhaps describe as a ‘recognized,’ ‘respected,’ ‘conventional’ education. Nevertheless, I am Guyanese. And this was the primary motivation for choosing the woman-piaba plant for my research, so that I could have an opportunity to extensively explore what the plant means to people and communities in my homeland, in my region, in my world and to myself.
My grandfather would sing Bill Rogers’ 1929 calypso song, ‘West Indian Weed Woman‘ at birthday parties or ‘limes.‘ The song is about an old woman selling ‘weed’ (herbaceous plants) on the streets of Georgetown. In the song, Rogers lists several weeds that the woman had in her basket and the list begins with “Man-Piaba, Woman-Piaba, tantan fall back and lemon grass” and so on. This song was my initial inspiration in my quest for woman-piaba knowledge. I then came across the Harry Belfonte ‘Man-Piaba‘ 1954 calypso song that infringed the lyrical work of Bill Rogers and it is now the song that is known for popularizing the woman-piaba plant in Jamaica and the US.
Woman-piaba (which is our vernacular name in Guyana), Hyptis pectinata (scientific name), is native to tropical America according to American sources, and native to West Africa according to African and Caribbean sources. Thus the origin of the plant is somewhat determined or claimed by the people who first ‘discovered’ its multiple medicinal and spiritual uses. Nevertheless, H pectinata is widely naturalized throughout the earth’s tropical zone. Woman-piaba belongs to the Lamiaceae family along with mint, lavender and basil.
Within the Caribbean, Brazil, tropical America and West Africa, woman-piaba is used for various medicinal and healing purposes. The Patamona Indians in Kamana, Guyana, boil the leaves and use the water for treating ‘bush yaws‘ or boil the whole plant and drink the water for tubercolosis. According to well-known Maroon herbalist in Jamaica, Ivelyn Harris, the Maroon cure for hot flashes is a piaba tea, which is used by many women in the Rio Grande Valley when they are going through menopause. In Mampong, Ghana, the leaf is ground to a paste and mixed with kaolin in water and taken three times daily for vomiting in pregnancy. These are amongst numerous other medicinal and healing uses, only few of which are disclosed.
From my research and engagement with woman-piaba, it is evident that there is not one documented history of this plant but many oral histories, some of which have been succinctly disclosed in different literary texts. In order to unearth this plant’s story, I had to gather information from the fragmented, scant literature to form linkages with the traditional knowledge and oral narratives that elders and herbalists shared with me. One of woman-piaba’s histories that I have traced includes transnational crossings from Ghana to Guyana.
The plant itself is gendered in the context of its uses and nomenclature used by Guyanese people, as the stalks that have the flowers and buds are used for varying symptoms or difficulties associated with menstruation, menopause and pregnancy, hence the reason for calling it ‘woman-piaba.‘ However, the stalks that have the broad, serrated leaves are used in decoctions such as aphrodisiacs for men, hence the name, ‘man-piaba‘. I initially thought that woman-piaba and man-piaba were two different plants. However, as Mr Tiwari, one of the elders I spoke with put it, they “are tubers of the same origin – man-piaba being ‘hard’ and woman-piaba being soft.
Mr Rampersaud Tiwari, a retired senior executive level officer of the Guyana Public Service who now lives in Toronto, was invited by Professor M Jacqui Alexander to share with our class his personal memories on local traditional community care and healing, drawing on his own experiences with early African and Indian elders in Buxton, his native village. Mr Tiwari shared that many early post-emancipation African women in Buxton village were employed in agricultural work in the sugar cane fields and in their own small farm holdings. Among these women, there were Nanas (sometimes referred to as Mamas or Gang Gangs) who were skilled in preparing herbal remedies and other cures for various ailments in mothers, infants, children and adults. One outstanding elder was Nana Fiffee, often referred to as the ‘Bush Medsin Lady.‘ Nana Fiffee was said to be “Akan, pure-blooded Ghanaian,” Mr Tiwari disclosed, and this was the point that transported my mind back to a text called, The useful plants of west tropical Africa by H M Burkill.
After re-reading the text, I made an instant historical connection as some of the common Ghanaian vernacular names that were indicated in the text were almost identical to ours in Guyana, which suggests that there must have been either a trans-Atlantic migration of knowledge or of the plant itself (or both) through enslaved people and their descendants like Nana Fiffee. I then recalled Ivelyn Harris, who is famous for her piaba tea, mentioned on her website that her ancestors were the Koromantyn of West Africa. Mavis Campbell and George Ross noted in a book, Back to Africa, that many of the Koromantyn and Akan people of Ghana were shipped to the New World through the Atlantic slave trade and this information made the connection even clearer as Jamaica and Guyana both use the same common name, ‘woman-piaba.’
People who travel from Guyana to Toronto often leave the plants and practices behind, but the knowledge is never forgotten. Woman-piaba has not reached Toronto in its entirety, but it has travelled in the minds and spirits of those who know what it is, how it looks and how it is used. I visited the Caribbean Corner store in Kensington Market, Toronto to see if woman-piaba was there. After realizing that it was not there, I asked people in the store if they knew the plant. Ms Yvonne, who works there, recalled the plant from the Harry Belafonte song that I mentioned earlier, but she did not know anything else about it. One elderly man with a Jamaican accent responded positively by saying that he knows the plant well, he showed me how tall it grew with his hands and said that they would boil the leaves and drink it to “feel good,” but was unable to tell me how or why. From these oral narratives and histories of woman- and man-piaba it is evident that the knowledge of the plant has travelled certainly from Jamaica and Guyana and resides within the memory of their diaspora in Toronto.
Through my research of the broader context of indigenous and traditional spirituality, I began to understand the power of the Sacred, the connections between the mind, body and spirit and I recognized that these three elements constitute a holistic cosmology that is never devoid of psychic, political, or socioeconomic questions. Ideologies of development and progress conceive the sacred cosmology as ‘tradition,’ the beginning of a linear, hierarchical process with modernity being the endpoint. Such processes affect traditional ways of thinking by providing no place or space for these sacred oral histories, these spiritual and traditional practices. Thus, the underlying reason for scant documentation on sacred practices in relation to woman-piaba and surface-level disclosure of the Sacred in discussions with herbalists, is based on the very premise that secularism has deemed the Sacred as backward and ancient and thus disallowed the indigenous spirituality and traditions to enter its cosmology.
Through the process of tracing and tracking information I gradually began to realize that sacred plants such as woman-piaba engender another level of consciousness if we are to fully grasp their significance, and to understand with humility what they can teach us. The plants are being called to do not only spiritual work, but also historical work. Through the plants, we come to understand the colonial history of plant knowledge and its spiritual and medicinal usages. The concept of species dominance wherein humans have superior intelligence to the rest of the living world, would be turned upside down and inside out for us humans to see the sacred intelligence of plants. This allows us to envision a world in which knowledge could begin with a single plant, like woman-piaba, and radically open us up to a world that we never knew existed, allowing us to re-vision what has been abandoned/shunned/erased – the Sacred.
I believe that my journey (and the journeys of my classmates) is important to the academic community as the knowledge that is taught and learnt in spaces like the classrooms of a university creates a sealed space that does not usually allow itself to be disrupted by other worldviews or cosmologies. The lessons of indigenous knowledge and spiritual practices have practical and intellectual significance for academia and the rest of the world. I believe that the work I have done is important to me, my own consciousness, as it has progressively transformed the ways in which I receive and interpret information that is presented to me; it has transformed my own subjectivity.
My reflection and the reflections of my colleagues that were shared after our journeys really substantiated the fact that the plants we chose to research and engage, actually chose us. I started out this class thinking that I had chosen the woman-piaba. I ended it realizing the beautiful and simple truth: that the woman-piaba had chosen me. The plant had a story to tell. I have a long way to go still, to understand why I had been selected, and what this means in the unfolding journey of my own life.