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health promoter/traditional doctor


Tiltepec, Oaxaca


13 September 1999


Having learnt about healing from her grandmother, Elvira has been a doctor of traditional medicine for 36 years and a health promoter for 16. She has worked and trained with the National Nutrition Institute and OMISJO, an organisation of traditional doctors, and now works from the traditional medicine hospital in her community. She married at 15 and has five daughters and 11 grandchildren.

The interview focuses on Elvira’s work as a healer, dealing with both physical and mental problems, such as nervous anxiety. She draws upon natural remedies and more supernatural ones, in which beliefs in spirits play a part. Her mixture of practical skills and experience with an understanding of more psychological matters seems to make her very effective. She describes the various different ailments that she can cure as well as explaining the plants used to treat them. She explains that these can be found wild in her community: “the allopathic medicine is expensive now. Well, what we have in the community is cheap and easy to find and it doesn’t irritate the skin; we prefer traditional medicine.”

Elvira describes how she became involved in healing and her experiences of working with the National Nutrition Institute and OMISJO. She is a great believer in passing on knowledge and is now involved in training others. Her initial involvement in healing was from necessity. The local traditional doctors were not interested in their work, and “it was necessary for me, for my family and for my community. I was a mother then and I had to give help as a midwife for the children.” She explains that she could only attend primary school as her parents were poor and “people used to say you shouldn’t send girls to school as they wouldn’t end up with a cargo”. But such attitudes have slowly changed and as a grown up she has held various cargos (unpaid community positions). The interview may have a narrow focus, but it is most interesting and Elvira’s warmth and humanity come through clearly.

detailed breakdown

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Section 1-2  Illnesses she can cure and the plants she uses. How she diagnoses shock. Treatment for nervous attacks and high blood pressure Most frequent conditions that she treats in the communities: childbirth, knocks and headache.
Section 2-3  Has been healer for 36 years, health promoter for 16. Learnt from her grandmother. Her time working in the National Nutrition Institute – after being an assistant took on the position of health promoter for the institute. Benefits of working for the training centre: she gained “more training and more knowledge and work in the traditional medicine centre”. Joining OMISJO – an organisation of traditional doctors.
Section 3-4  Was 18 when she started, married at 15. Started work out of necessity. Before she began there were healers but “they weren’t interested; we don’t all have love for our work”. Now there is a shortage of traditional healers.
Section 4-5  Her family: five daughters, four sons-in-law, 11 grandchildren She has held many cargos – there is a liga feminil (Women’s League) in her village. Has also farmed a little. Uses wild plants in her work: “the natural resources we have in our community.” I dry them, I process them, and I make ointments, tinctures…many medicines.”
Section 5-6  Works from the Traditional Medicine Hospital in her community – people look for her if they need her. She also has connections with other hospitals and communities and she also trains other promoters. She works “at all hours”. Schedules are for farm labourers, she says: “the sick don’t follow time, they get ill suddenly and we have to go to them.” Her role as a midwife.