Panama: The Last Medicine Woman
The secret life of plants
BY Joe Rubin and Paula Botero
March 01, 2007
Joe Rubin is a regular contributor to FRONTLINE/World. His most recent story, "The Men That Got Away," reports on the hunt for Bosnian Serb war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. In 2004 Rubin was a Knight Fellow in International Journalism assigned to Panama.
Colombian-born video journalist Paula Botero today splits her time between Panama and Miami. She has worked for national television in Panama and Colombia and produced documentary shorts for the emerging cell phone market in Latin America. She is currently working on a documentary about refugees from Colombia's civil war.
Two years ago I was in Panama (on a Knight Fellowship in International Journalism), teaching local aspiring filmmakers something I usually practice, backpack video journalism.
I found myself especially intrigued by one of my student's class projects. Journalist Paula Botero had won the trust of a Kuna Indian medicine woman, known as a "Nele" in Kuna culture, living on the outskirts of Panama City. I accompanied Paula on several of her visits, offering a few shooting hints as she captured an ancient healing tradition that has rarely been filmed or photographed.
One day I invited my wife Sarah to tag along. The sultry climate wasn't agreeing with her sensitive skin and a nasty rash was keeping her up at night. I wondered if the Nele might help her, but mostly I wanted to apply some journalistic skepticism -- to see if herbal remedies and communication with plant spirits were more effective than the local dermatologist.
Nele was hardly fazed by the visit of two Californians to her rudimentary concrete home. Just as she did when treating the local Kuna population, she sat a few feet away from Sarah quietly thinking for a few minutes, taking occasional puffs of a hallucinogenic substance in her pipe. She broke the silence with a diagnosis that startled me. Speaking in Kuna, and translated by her son into Spanish, she told my wife that her rash was just a by-product of the real problem. She told Sarah that she was worried/obsessed about her ability to get pregnant. "Your only problem is worrying; once you stop you, will get pregnant." She gave Sarah some leaves in a plastic bag to make into a tea, which she said wasn't really necessary, and promised to visit Sarah in her dreams to ensure future motherhood.
The funny thing was that it was an uncanny diagnosis. We had just started trying to get pregnant and Sarah was upset when it didn't happen right away.
We'll never know if the rash was really related to worries over fertility. A week later my fellowship took us to more arid San Salvador, and within a month there was a faint blue line on a pregnancy test. Today our delightful daughter, Ginger, is nearly two.
Needless to say, the Nele story stayed with me. A few months ago I talked to Paula by phone in Panama. We decided to collaborate and revisit the story of the Nele of Panama City for FRONTLINE/World. When Paula first brought up the idea in class, neither of us imagined that the story would also take us to a high-tech Smithsonian laboratory where scientists are testing plants for cancer-fighting chemical properties, or into the international debate over globalization. But that's the nature of backpack video journalism. There are always unexpected turns.
There is a whole world full of treasure troves of knowledge that are unfortunately only passed down through the generations orally. Some of it still retained faithfully but a lot of it has been lost when those messages get distorted over several generations. Unfortunately, not being able to publish in medical journals does not give the healing methods of many native doctors and shamans the credibility of their methods to the developed world (I see their skills as partly knowledge of the local plants and herbs, wisdom and experience mixed in partly with some religious mumbo-jumbo that helps them to connect better with their local communities during the healing rituals). Nevertheless, it is extremely valuable knowledge that is being eroded over time. Hopefully, technology will help preserve knowledge such as Nele's.
gregory hart - pembroke pines, florida
It is very interesting to see modern science learning old lessons. Great film. I enjoyed watching.
Sonoma County, CA
For more on this topic, I recommend the book, The Cosmic Serpent. The curanderos of The Amazon take the hallucinogen, Ayuasca. They too say that the plants speak to them. The book's subtitle is, The Origins Of Knowledge, because the author realizes that the curanderos made the same scientific discoveries hundreds of years before those of us that use the scientific method. Compelling!
It's amazing that there's still folk medicine out there at all. Normally, the pharmaceutical companies would just flood the market with cheap drugs and people would have no reason to go to their family folk doctor, so I think it's incredible that the knowledge has been preserved this long in the face of that adversity.
Daniel Pendergraft - Allen, TX
I thoroughly enjoyed this segment of FRONTLINE uncovering the reality of traditional knowledge existing around us. In the modern world it sometimes seems that traditional lifestyles and practices no longer coexist with our world, but they still survive. The prospect of utilizing traditional knowledge to discover cures for serious diseases is extremely exciting. If we could harness all the possibilities of the plants that exist in the rainforests of Panama and all over the world, we would be much better off in society.
I thoroughly enjoyed watching and learning about a tradition that has lived through so much, and is still being continued in our modern world. It keeps me hopeful to know that the cures for AIDS and Cancer may be in those plants somewhere, and we simply have not found the right ones yet. It was a great film, very informative, and extremely well made. I would be interested in learning much more about this particular topic if the opportunity arises.
A. Patterson - Petaluma, CA
This was a great segment, but come on---you can't do a piece about ethnobotany and within it state "she smokes a hallucinogen in a pipe" and not name what that hallucinogen is! As a layman ethnobotanist, I found that extremely frustrating. If you failed to get the name of the plant or any other information about it, you totally dropped the ball and missed the point of your own piece---that indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants is being rapidly lost.
The Shaman use DMT to bring themselves closer to nature and open their minds to things we can not see. Scientists are now just realizing what has been known for thousands of years and that is, we live in a world with more dimensions to our universe then we can precieve. To just dismiss the shaman as being backwater or some kind of hick would clearly mean you have your mind closed. The mind is your gateway and sometimes it needs a little push to open the door. Great program, thanks Frontline.
Bozidar Kornic - Shelbyville, Michigan
I'm from (ex) Yugoslavia where people believe a lot in natural medicine. Coming to U.S.A. was a great disapointment that Americans are so brainwashed to believe only in the 'pharmaceutical solutions' prescriptions by the MD's. We have used a common weed called Plantain to cure infections, boils, pain, excess acid, and many other medical situations. In the U.S. this plant is deliberately removed from people's lawns and gardens. What stupidity, eliminating the medical cure? I have lovered my cholesterol by simply changing my diet to the point that I never have to use any of the costly medications that can be had only by prescription. Our medical schools must start educating our doctors that we do have natural cures that have NO side effects and are very inexpensive and often free. But as long as the health industry is fee for srvice, our doctors have no incentives to really cure, why kill the goose that lays a golden egg?
Sue Luke - Seattle, WA
I am so happy to see that the Cuna have not been forgotten. When I lived in Panama in the early 1960s, these Cuna men worked for the Zone. Their wives remained at home on the San Blas Islands, and the men brought money home to them...truly a matriarchal society. Lorenzio is unusual, therefore, in more ways than one. And the world is richer for their continued existence and sustenance. We must not lose this knowledge! Thanks for the story.
amanda taylor - flournoy, California
Sheila you would like the book, "The Hummingbird's Daughter" by Luis Alberto Urrea.
Vasilios Maniatis - Grenada, West Indies
The disease is Chagas, not Chagras. That said, I think that a very important point is where these medicinal plants were collected (roadside-disturbed forest and not primary rainforest) and the fact that these were not "true" forest Indians but acclimated Indians who spoke Spanish. My point is that there is a wealth of traditional, folk-based medicinal information and one need not enter the heart of the Amazon to find it. This film supports that. I think the real problem is categorizing all the information out there and allowing people from around the world to edit and contribute to that information. The answer is technology, and the best medium in my opinion is Wiki software such as Wikipedia where users can contribute without the top down approach inherent in our academic institutions. After all, who are the real PhD's, the Shaman or the western-trained academic?Incidentally, I am in the process of putting together a Wiki-based project to do just this under the domain, RainforestRx.com (site is not active yet).
Onelia Guillot - New Iberia, La
I would like to email directly to the lady in Panama and advise her and her dear husband to believe in their product and not to trust just anyone to package this, especially the United States. You must use this product for you and your people who struggle everyday for what you desire. My dad and mom taught me the same...The government is [taking advantage of] people.
Onelia Guillot - New Iberia, La
I really enjoyed this story. What a fantastic one. I wonder what this plant is called. Must be only in Panama. Our family comes from Indian and Spanish, too, who were healed the same ways.
Marjorie B. Hume - Washington, DC
Once again Reporter Joe Rubin reveals the tip of a societal iceburg. As the Neles of our modern world, with their irreplaceable knowledge, threaten to slip away, Rubin and Botero deliver a thoughtful wake up call. "Will the key to our future actually lie in our fast retreating past?", they seem to posit.
Danger and opportunity are the combined Chinese characters for the word "crisis".
Rubin and Botero squarely illustrate that that is our dilemma. While we still have the opportunity we can choose to question our "Pardon Our Progress" attitude and salvage these ancient resources- or lose them forever.
Pallavi Shrivastava - Tempe, AZ
Journalistic skepticism, so true! But this anecdote reminds me of many Indian methods of treatment from mundane to knotty ailments.
Elena Ford - Jacksonville, FL
I have seen none of your documentaries. This was a good experience for you and your wife. However, what is different between this experience and a miracle from God? For those of us who are saved and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, we know that the Lord works miracles through people and He always has a word for our present condition. Jesus is love and He is the healer of healers.
God bless you!
bibi khan - gatineau, quebec, quebec canada
I haven't seen the documentary or your short video but it's always good to know that such healings is still available. I would sure like more info on the kuna indians as I was hoping to visit Panama soon.
WOW! If this medicine lady was brought to the U.S. she'd be considered a criminal for using hallucinogens. Sad but true. Pharma companies in the middle of this....Looks fishy (it's about the money they can make from this, not how many people they can help.)
Sheilda Perez - Newport News, Virginia
I am in the medical field and it is always so enlightening whenever I can learn anything new. Great job and thank you for sending me the email.
Anna Rubin - Boston, MA
Incredible story. Very well done. Thank you for introducing me to Nele and the world of Shaman medicine. (Full disclosure: I am the proud sister (twin) of Joe Rubin.)
Gary Shomburg - Boca Raton, FL
We have a lot to learn from societies such as the one documented in this film. I am grateful for the chance to learn about Nene and her medicines.
I am looking forward to Ms. Boteros' next film.
Molly R. - New York, New York
I found this documentary very interesting and would love to see a follow-up story that touches on developing intellectual property rights for such communities. Thank you.
Jeronimo RD - Manizales, Caldas
I think this is a great film with which we can learn to preserve and understand ancient traditions of women's importance in the world. Thank you.
Pamela Pitt - Miami, Florisa
The footage on this short film is tremendous! It's a very colorful documentary that offers an insider's view of the medicine woman traditions. I have never heard about the Kuna Indians in Panama. Beautiful. Thank you very much. Paula you did an excellent job.
Great documentary! It was very interesting. I would like to Co-produce a feature film about Kuna Indians, and look forward to more videos about shamans.
Cynda Baron - Annville, PA
This story brought me back to a time when I lived in Morocco. A group of women came at night and gathered around a sick grandmother with whom I was living. They took plants and chanted in a different dialect and made tea from the plants. They burned incense and covered her with a cloth to get rid of what was making her sick. I found out that she had a problem with her endocrine system and could not eat. After 3 or 4 times of performing this ritual, the grandmother had felt better and did not take any modern medicine.
SHELIA SPEARMAN - SHREVEPORT, LOUISIANA
I really enjoyed this story about the last medicine woman. I wonder are there any more good stories about healing women in other parts of the world? You hear so little about women and their special gifts.
Jim Snow - McLean, VA
A very touching story about a world that I (and I suspect "we" in the U.S. for the most part) don't understand or know much about -- another "way of knowing", another experience in a "parallel universe". Thank you Joe.