• Fri, 5, Feb, 2021 - 5:00:AM

Decolonising science: herbs, hauora and hypotheses

Herbs on white background / Dung Thuy Vu Nguyen / Pixabay

Ever since I can remember, my mother has been a huge fan of hot drinks. 

Not coffee or hot chocolate, though, more like ginger juice and wormwood teas. The more scalding, the better. She’s also a fan of vegetables — most of which I can’t name in English — like goji leaves and water spinach.

And ever since I can remember, I have not been a fan of those things. I would push away bowls or cups or plates of steeped, shredded, fermented, foul-smelling, bitter-tasting food and drink — wondering why she insisted I eat it. “It’s good for you,” she’d snap, though I didn’t particularly agree. I saw nothing scientific supporting her demands.

A few years ago, Mum showed me an article about Tu Youyou.

Winning the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2015, Tu Youyou discovered the compound artemisinin, a component of anti-malaria medicines. It’s isolated from sweet wormwood, a staple of Chinese traditional medicine. As I read, Mum was smug, she was vindicated and she slid a plate of magenta, fermented radishes in front of me. Eat up.

The reason I recall these memories is that I’ve had a reckoning of late. Once, I thought science was untouchable by bias — I mean, it’s science! — by its very nature of being methodical and impartial. Proper science requires isolating your variables and testing your hypotheses in controlled situations.

I thought wrong. 

Science in colonised and imperialised societies can be, and has been, used to perpetuate those systems. Western science was an integral part of colonising indigenous peoples. 

The white man’s burden was to protect and save supposedly poor, uneducated and defenceless indigenous communities from infections and disease. Sickness, malnourishment and living conditions were thought (by white people) to be the problem; the “solution” was colonisation, to generously spread the glorious achievements of Western science and modernity.

To deliver medicine to dying children, they needed roads. To build roads, they needed raw materials, forcibly taken from the land. To get raw materials, they needed labour, snatched from the hands of indigenous peoples. Then they needed the land to build those roads on… and we all know what happened there.

Western science was also used to discredit existing indigenous scientific practices. After all, white saviours can’t deliver science to needy communities if they have their own thriving knowledge systems in place. So many medical practices, sciences and so much rich knowledge already possessed by indigenous communities were written off as unscientific. Tribal. Voodoo. Placebo. Unproven. 

Without the endorsements of Western science, a lot of this knowledge stopped being handed down. I myself needed the mention of a Nobel Prize to give weight to the wormwood, to start viewing the generational knowledge Mum was trying to give me as just that. Generational knowledge that she was trying to give me.

I doubt that Chinese traditional doctors knew artemisinin by name, but I don’t doubt that each herb in the inventory had a specific place and purpose. The same goes for Rongoā Māori, holistic Māori medicine. Herbal medicine, psychological care, karakia and massage were all practices employed to look after one’s hauora — and hauora (well-being) doesn’t start and stop with medicine. Having robust social support networks is as important as having access to antibiotics.

Though I’m far from a tohunga (expert), I can imagine the dissonance between Western and other forms of science. Holistic healthcare means focusing equally on pro-active lifestyles, reactive treatment and consistent aftercare, which is encompassing, long-term and integrated. How would the Western scientific method — which requires picking a variable, a single hypothesis, and testing it — fit with that?

It doesn’t. 

Why choose one type of treatment and isolate it from the others? What would be the point in extracting a certain chemical from a plant when its water content, fibre and vitamins are just as beneficial? Why wouldn’t there be resources for emotional support after being released from a hospital stint?

Western medicine, after all, has its own pitfalls, like being so body-focused that mental health is largely written off. Like using antibiotics as reactive — and often overkill — treatment that is stoking the flames of antibiotic resistance, one of the largest scientific concerns of this century.

This is not to say I’ll scream for a plate of raw vegetables when I fracture my arm. I want x-rays, casts and (if needed) surgery. But I also want calcium-rich food afterwards and guidance as I try to re-learn how to function with an injured limb.

As always, diverse knowledge is strong knowledge. We shouldn’t prize one knowledge system over the other, but rather merge them for the benefit of everyone. Dr. Ocean Mercier (Ngāti Porou) is one person at the cutting edge, using the application of mātauranga Māori and scientific principles in tandem to solve problems. That is one shining example of what I consider proper science.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to drink a stinging cup of wormwood tea.


  • Decolonisation /
  • Science /
  • Intersectionality /
  • Medicine /
Support Villainesse

Comments ( 0 )

Be the first to have your say login or register to post a comment

You might also love


Regular Contributor All Articles