One of the “Oh yuk” chapters in Africa’s Child, the first book in my memoir series, deals with how we were rid of parasites and other infestations common at the orphanage and in Africa.
Back then the German nuns that raised us relied mainly on aspirin, home remedies and prayer to keep us healthy and cure us of our illnesses. On my latest visit to Kifungilo, we were served delicious teas made from herbs fresh from the garden. I recalled the many different teas we drank growing up, mainly as part of our meals, but often as remedies as well.
Below, Twin Cities writer Katie Bowden shares some research on German folk remedies the nuns used to keep us healthy at the orphanage, and she also gives a contemporary perspective on them.
Keeping Healthy in Kifungilo Orphanage: German Folk Remedies
By Guest Blogger Katie Bowden
A child’s stomachache can often be caused by ingesting something they weren’t supposed to be eating or by sensitivities to specific foods. Modern responses to these pains, however, are much different from the remedies used in an East African orphanage during the 1960s.
Maria Nhambu spent her childhood in the Usambara Mountains of Tanzania, at the Don Bosco Orphanage and School for mixed race children. Some students had parents, others did not. Those with parents experienced benefits unavailable to those without providers, such food higher in quality and quantity.
Nhambu, having been turned over to the orphanage shortly after birth, was considered a complete orphan and had scarce resources as a result. Having no parents or family in the nearby villages, Nhambu would sometimes ask classmates for a share of their food or scavenge the berries that grew wild in Tanzania.
Every three months, the children of the mountain orphanage were spoon-fed castor oil by Sister Silvestris, who was considered their resident doctor and nurse. The castor oil was a preventive measure, meant to flush out parasites that accumulated in their intestines as a result of their living conditions. Castor oil itself has been used as a laxative for thousands of years, and is an effective treatment for constipation. The fatty acid within castor oil, ricinoleic acid, binds to receptors on the smooth muscle wall of the intestine. The body then reacts by contracting the muscles that push out stool, working effectively to move things through.
Modern health organizations also state that castor oil is not meant to be used on children under the age of twelve. Nhambu, along with other children, dreaded the treatment as a normal part of their health care routine. The evenings after treatment were marked by a widespread loss of appetite, after the castor oil stripped the lining of their stomachs. The floor would swarm with “live ringworms, round worms, and tapeworms” that were purged from the children’s stomachs (Nhambu, 71). The children would go to bed at the end of the day, some having already fainted from weakness and the smell permeating their living quarters. The treatment would have run its course by morning, but left them exhausted.
Children were served herbal teas made from the herbs grown in the extensive gardens at Kifungilo. Peppermint, chamomile, lemon balm and other fragrant teas prepared with a bit of sugar accompanied their meals.
Sister Silvestris was acting in a long tradition of folk remedies that started with Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century German nun whose herbal Natural Science was published posthumously in 1533. Germany itself has a rich history of herbal medicine, with many herbs—such as St. John’s Wort, ginseng, and Echinacea—approved as drugs for formal prescription today. The sale of herbal drugs as medicine was affirmed into German law in 1901, and affirmed again in 1961.
Sometimes treatment was based on traditions of folklore. Children who contracted mumps at the orphanage were treated in the infirmary by laying strips of bacon around their face and cheeks in an effort to reduce the swelling. This form of treatment is similar to an old German-American remedy, where pinning bacon to a piece of flannel and wrapping it around the neck was believed to cure a sore throat.
Current medical treatment in Germany is not reluctant to place faith in alternative treatments, as long as effectiveness is proven. A study conducted in 1989, looking into the science of sweating out a cold, discovered that participants who sat in a sauna twice a day only caught colds at half the rate of those who never used a sauna. The sauna’s high temperature of 192 degrees Fahrenheit was breathed into the participants’ airways and would easily kill any cold viruses incapable of surviving in such heat.
As for Nhambu, her childhood was marked three times a year by castor oil remedies administered out on the school verandah, alongside all the other children. During an infirmary visit—which often resulted in meals gifted to her by patients who were too sick to eat them—a young girl offered Nhambu the bacon that had been wrapped around her head in an effort to treat the swelling from mumps. Nhambu peeled off the greenish strips and smuggled them out in the waistband of her panties. She shared the bounty with her best friend, Elizabeth, dividing the bacon’s fat and meat between them. Afterwards they licked their palms clean—and didn’t contract mumps as a result of their contraband food.