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Martha Hanna-Smith is an educator who grew up on the 92 square-mile island of Acklins in the Bahamas.

As an artisan and educator, Hanna-Smith has been teaching local residents how to turn their crafts into entrepreneurship for over 40 years.

She works with the natural materials of her homeland, including straw, shells, and sand, to make culturally relevant art. Other specialties include her herbal teas, jams, and jellies.

“I drank bush teas all my life, so that’s all I know. I knew nothing about cocoa or Ovaltine, so I had to resort to what we had in the backyard,” Hanna-Smith says. “All of the plants, like the soursop and all of the others, were there.”

She learned about herbs by observing her elders. If she saw a plant she didn’t recognize, she asked to learn more.

“I learned a lot from elderly people, just by asking questions and also seeing what they used,” she says.

Eventually, Hanna-Smith’s work with plants gained attention, and she received a distinction for her study on bush medicine. In 2006, she published a book called “Bush Medicine in Bahamian Folk Tradition.”

Hanna-Smith has been instrumental in teaching about the health benefits of bush medicine, establishing local craft associations, and embodying and preserving Bahamian culture.

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“The practice of bush medicine was one of the many contributions of the Africans to this part of the world,” Hanna-Smith says. “It’s regarded in the Bahamas as an African survival [necessity].”

She notes that bush medicine is connected to the transatlantic slave trade, and the plants used when slavery was in effect are among those still used today.

“We believe that Africans, when they were transported here, brought seeds and plants with them, and they passed on their knowledge of these plants,” Hanna-Smith says.

Bush medicine is most often used to make tea, but it can also be used for salves, poultices, and rubs. Some commonly used plants include:

Fever grass is one of the most well-known bush medicines and easily identified by its fragrance.

Known as lemongrass in other parts of the world, it’s used to relieve fevers and promote relaxation. The flavor is similar to lemon peel, and the plant helps support the immune system.

“Fever grass is one that you must wash carefully because dogs love to pee on it and that can make you very sick,” Hanna-Smith warns. “Once washed, you can boil it, but some people also crush it. And I find that method gives it more strength.”

Cerasee has a reputation as a versatile herb in the Bahamas. It’s used for common ailments, from stomach pains to colds, and it’s also beneficial for diabetes.

Many Bahamian adults have memories of being forced to drink the bitter tea as sick children.

Kamalame, also called gumbo limbo, is known as the “healing tree.” Its sap can be used to treat skin reactions to other plants.

In her study of bush medicine across islands, Hanna-Smith often discovered different names for the same plants.

For instance, sapodilla, or dilly in the Bahamas, is known as neeseberry in Jamaica. A plant known as blue vervain in Jamaica is called blue flowers in the Bahamas.

“Our parents used to use blue flowers every Sunday morning to clean out their systems.” Hanna-Smith says.

In most cases, the uses of the plants are the same across islands, but there were some instances in which plants were used for purposes different from those known to Hanna-Smith.

Hanna-Smith notes that much of this knowledge was kept by Obeah practitioners and witch doctors, who were among the enslaved people living in the Bahamas.

These were, and still are in many cases, people familiar with the medicinal properties of plants believed to have connections with the spiritual world.

While these medicine people were usually important to their communities, the term “witch doctor” has fairly negative connotations in modern parlance.

“We have a really rich history. In that period, 1600 to 1800, the Europeans and the Africans were here, and the Europeans did not agree with the use of this bush medicine,” Hanna-Smith says.

The oral traditions of Obeah, Vodou, Santeria, and Shango are still commonly practiced in the Caribbean, despite the colonial legacy that labels them as nefarious and even demonic.

These stereotypes can still be seen in popular culture.

For instance, the 2009 Disney film “The Princess and the Frog” features a character named Dr. Facilier, an example of the distortion and villanization of Haitian Vodou common in white culture.

Why such negative treatment?

Aside from the religious clash of the colonizer’s religion, these traditions, and the plant medicine that went with them, was a power that African people had and retained while they were enslaved.

Their knowledge and, in many cases, mastery of herbalism gave them the ability, to a certain extent, to control and heal their own bodies.

This is a right Black people have often been denied.

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Practitioners knew which plants would heal wounds, ease stomach aches, induce vomiting, and even affect the reproductive system.

This allowed Bahamians to take care of themselves and each other, even if they didn’t have access to the same medical care and treatment as white colonizers.

While some indigenous knowledge of bush medicine has been lost, Hanna-Smith believes it’s important for the tradition to be passed on and continued through generations.

“We have some plants that are poisonous, and everyone needs to know to avoid them,” she says. “We need to know how to use the plants that are good. People should not die with this information.”

This conviction is part of what fuels Hanna-Smith’s work.

Bush medicine isn’t a relic of the past.

It’s a possible avenue to a brighter, more empowered future for the Bahamian people — and a potential gateway to a specialized industry that Bahamians can develop using ancestral knowledge.

This would not only lead to improved physical health, but also to economic well-being.

Both are undeniably interlinked.

Previously, others capitalized on the expertise of elders in the African diaspora. It’s essential for this information to be protected and used for the good of African people.

For Hanna-Smith, the future of bush medicine looks positive.

Bahamian students are engaging in research projects on bush medicine. And some teachers are giving assignments that require students to identify plants and their medicinal uses.

Including bush medicine in formal education helps ensure the tradition will be understood and practiced for years to come.

“I want to see my book in all Bahamian schools and sold in grocery stores,” Hanna-Smith says. “I want to see wellness centers where people can get the teas they need.”

She adds that she’s working on a second book with more plants and kitchen remedies.

Hanna-Smith notes that people often visit the Bahamas and collect information on bush medicine. In many cases, information is given too freely.

Then, they return to their countries and capitalize on the knowledge of African descendants.

For instance, soursop has grown in popularity because of claims that it helps fight cancer — though there’s a lack of human studies to confirm this.

This kind of reactionary consumption distorts the true uses of the plant, turning it into a commodity that’s removed from its biological and cultural context.

This makes it easier to manipulate public perception.

Soursop products are increasingly marketed as “cancer killing,” though this claim isn’t supported by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Soursop is a food and medicine staple in the Caribbean, and its increasing popularity puts it at risk of being overharvested and becoming endangered.

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Hanna-Smith emphasizes the importance of getting to know plants and herbs in your local ecosystem. She shares some ideas, like:

  • learning to identify plants
  • learning the history of bush or herbal medicine in your region
  • paying attention to what local animals eat for clues

These practices can help you become more aware of the medicinal plants around you.

You can begin to explore native plants by:

At the same time, exercise extreme caution.

In learning about plant medicine, it’s important to pay attention to the details. Proper identification can be the difference between life and death.

For instance, Hanna-Smith shares that kamalame often grows near poisonwood, a plant that lives up to its name.

She recalls a time that someone died after using poisonwood, thinking it was kamalame.

“If you use the wrong plant, I will sing for you,” she says, implying that a funeral will soon follow.

Warning

Never consume plants you’ve identified based on an app, online discussion, or book. These methods are for education and exploration only. Truly learning to identify plants takes time, in-depth study, training, and lots of practice.

Always verify a plant’s identity with an herbalist, botanist, or other qualified professional before using it for any reason.

Bahamians love bush medicine, because it connects them to their land, their heritage, and their ancestry. It’s a tradition they trust.

The tradition of bush medicine helped many Bahamians maintain autonomy over their bodies and their health during the era of the transatlantic slave trade.

It continues to be a way to honor the past while empowering the future for the Bahamian people.


Alicia A. Wallace is a queer Black feminist, women’s human rights defender, and writer. She’s passionate about social justice and community building. She enjoys cooking, baking, gardening, traveling, and talking to everyone and no one at the same time on Twitter.