Despite the lack of alternative energy forcing people to cut trees to make charcoal, the people of Haiti remain a population that appreciates the country’s tree canopy. This song, Fèy, meaning leaves or herbs, is one of many traditional Haitian songs reminding us of the merits of leaves for herbal medicine. While the opening word of the song, fèy, establishes the central theme, the closing statement about poverty, mizè, helps to remind us of the monumental importance of herbal medicine to the poor in particular. While the central theme of the song remains the importance of herbal medicine, in just a few words, the song also captures the social and religious dimensions of illness.
The social aspect is revealed by the parent’s agonizing concern over the child’s illness. The parent is so affected, that the child’s illness is presented as the parents own sickness and the child’s recovery is presented as the wellbeing of the parent. The song does this by using the pronoun mwen, meaning I or me, to blur the distinction between the parent and the sick child. Implied in the merger of the two characters is that one’s illness goes beyond oneself and affects others.
Considering that the child’s recovery is the principal objective of the parent, notably absent from the song is an effort by the parent to explore modern medicine as a potential treatment option. The song makes no mention of the many wonderful modern machines and remedies available for detecting and treating a vast number of diseases. This omission occurs because the song is both an old song and is about a poor person in need of healthcare services. The song is not about how those who are privileged deal with illness. Worldwide, for the vast majority of people, modern medicine is an expensive non-option and for this reason it is not mentioned in the song. In addition, people are often more familiar and trusting of herbal medicine than they are of modern medicine. The use of herbs for treating disease is believed to be at least 40,000 years old whereas modern medicine introduced its first pill, aspirin, only 100 years ago.
The religious aspect of the song is expressed in the faith the singer has in the gangan’s ( a priest and medicinal man) ability to cure whatever illness is affecting the child. In as much as the song is about the use of herbal medicine, it is also a religious song. The singer calls the medicinal man, Simbi because in Kongolese tradition Simbi is the most powerful class of ancestral spirits. Simbi is referred to because in West Coast African Tradition it is inappropriate to disturb God for personal needs particularly when God has created intermediaries to address those needs. By Kongolese tradition after creating the world, God gave to the first gangan (a priest and medicinal man) the power to treat disease and this information has been passed down ever since.
Appealing to Simbi as a bon gangan is in keeping with Kongolese religious tradition brought to Haiti in the 17 and 18th centuries. Numerous Haitian Traditional songs equate knowledge of herbal medicine with Simbi. For this reason, Simbi is commonly referred to as Simbi Ganga and as Simbi Makaya. Makaya is the Kikongo word for leaf. Whereas, modern medicine is secular in its approach, traditional treatments are commonly intertwined with religion. Traditional medicine often relies not only on herbs but also on religious beliefs. This gives rise to such Haitian sayings as “Gran pawòl, gran tretman” and “Tout fèy se fèy, twa pawòl di l bon” meaning herbs are just leaves that are made potent by religious words and ritual.
Habitually, traditional songs have numerous versions and this is true of this song as well. Those wishing to eliminate African traditions from the song have substituted, “mwen kouri kay doktè”, meaning I sought the advice of a doctor instead of I sought treatment from a gangan, a Vodou priest. Such substitution ignores the reality that modern care is unaffordable for more than 50% of the world’s population living on a dollar a day. Poor people have more access to gangans, to friends, and to family for their health care needs than they do to the secular care provided by doctors and nurses. Changing the lyric of the song ignores that traditional health care providers are the backbone of the world’s health care system.
According to the World Health Organization, 80% of the world’s population depends on herbal medication for their health care needs because they cannot afford modern care. The parent in the song is poor and is described as living in misery. In Haiti, misery is a term used synonymously with poverty, but here in this song it has a double meaning because it also refers to the parents suffering due to his or her child’s illness. Like poor people everywhere, the parent has access to herbal remedies as that is produced locally in Haiti while drugs in tablet form are imported and import tariffs and transportation fees increase the costs of these already expensive medications.
Practically, the parent’s only hope is to be treated by a gangan who knows just the right herb for treating the child. The existence of the right herbal medication is what sustains the parent’s hopes. Worldwide, there are 20,000 plants known to be used for medicinal purposes. This is still a small fraction of the estimated 2 million species of plants known to exist. The large reserve of plants, that remain to be studied, give people confidence that cures to all diseases are there in nature just waiting to be found. Although this assumption is widely believed, it is untested. The parent appeals to Simbi, because as the most ancient and powerful of ancestral spirits, Simbi is the one more likely to have the knowledge necessary to cure the child and to provide for the parent’s wellbeing. This is said as “Simbi Bon Gangan, l a sove lavi mwen.” In some versions, the gangan is called, Similo and there is uncertainty as to whether or not a cure will be found. This is said as “Si li bon gangan, l a sove lavi mwen lan mizè mwen ye o.”
Regardless of which version of the song one sings, the central theme is the same. The song in all its forms remains one about the importance of leaves as natural remedies accessible to the poor. In many ways, nature does provide for our health and in return we must be good custodians of nature. We must save Haiti’s forest so that its leaves can continue to provide for our well-being.
In this rendition of Fèy O, the sounds of the Haitian rainforest come to life!