Category Archives: Plants

Rituals of Restoration


Susan James, 2015.

When spirit enters these rituals of restoration a kind of cultural alchemy can temporarily cook what is raw, unite what is divided, give meaning to what is chaotic, and thereby enchant, refresh, and reanimate all participants. It is this experience of negotiated cohesion through dialogue leading to a shared feeling of grace that is sought in a theory of restoration. Knowing how to create such rituals is the special expertise of healers, curanderas, griots.

–Helene Shulman Lorenz, This Bridge We Call Home, 2002.

I arrived at the Tobago Centre after a relatively recent relocation from the east coast to the west coast of the US and a new position in the academy where I wrestle with feelings of estrangement in my navigation of some unfamiliar, and other all too familiar, terrain. To enter the Tobago Centre is to encounter a sense of, and an unspoken commitment to compassion with one another with a “shared feeling of grace.” Within our egbe (group of spiritual companions) one is in the constant company of friends and spirit, organized by Orisha traditions and orchestrated by Iya M. Jacqui Alexander’s meticulous skill and openheartedness in teaching by demonstration, conversation and participation. I had not realized the full meaning of the intimate connections among Land, Waters, Orisha divinities and our ancestors, and the timeliness of my own visit. However, the journey toward that realization began almost immediately. With Iya’s careful attention, I settled into a new country, culture, cuisine, and renewed spiritual practice with such ease that the idea of adjustment is really not applicable. Bay leaf infused coffee, evening bush tea, pommecythere with salt and hot pepper, fresh guava juice and morning papaya, local fish purchased from fisherman, morning bacalao with coconut bread, Tobago style pepper sauce, and an occasional fish pie became joyful and delicious routines. Morning and evening meditation opened and closed the day, yet in one sense time itself was otherwise elusive, and almost irrelevant. Our daily rituals of chores, errands, offerings, tending, planting, swimming, devotion, prayers, song, meals, and always-meaningful inquiry with one another about how we were feeling, uncovered a yearning for these cohesive “rituals of restoration” that Shulman Lorenz speaks of. Nine coins placed in my hand to leave as an offering to Oyá at the marketplace; ocean spray reaching over our heads and soaking our faces on the steps near Swallows beach during an offering to Yemayá; calling mo’juba, the ancestral prayer to request the presense of spirit and ancestors, and regular libations to Eshú, seeking permission to cross the entrance onto the Land; the exquisite mandala of nine grains for Babalu Ayé that greeted me on his feast day, the sunflowers we planted at the riverside and libation of honey for Oshún, with dreams of her revitalization were all lived manifestations of spirit in these “rituals of restoration,” and devotion – rituals of restoring spirituality, ancestry and collectivity, all of which seeped through me in ways that were subtle, raw, acute, and not immediately detectable. My experiences amounted to a process of un-layering, and undoing that eventually revealed a way of dwelling that was the most fulfilling I have ever known.

Also true of the wider Centre life, no matter our location; whether seated on giant leaves at the river bank while a Blue Food festival erupted behind us, or on the rocks along the shoreline at Castara on a day when the ocean was too turbulent to enter; or while assembled around the weighty iron planting table to lift and move it across the yard to everyone’s disbelief (except Iya), or gathered at Ngozi’s to experience Charleston’s hypnotic private piano concert; on a search for the spring water spigot in the rain forest, or a hike to find a particular plant species, or around the dining table after a meal to which we all contributed, we engaged fervently in wide ranging, meaningful dialogue that affirmed our collective experience. Within our egbe, in true oral tradition, or testimonio, we discussed local, US and global politics, the anticipated verdicts from Ferguson and Staten Island, the trauma of eurocentrism, the manipulations of “diversity” efforts in the US, along with spiritual knowledge systems, and of course our families and personal lives, and yes, life in the academy. A series of evenings were devoted to lessons from Odu Ifá that Iya taught over several days. Our discussion of the text extended long into the evenings, and often continued the next morning. I loved the feeling of meshed solidarity in our exchanges, without the need for legitimization that can accompany professional discourse, and will remember them as possibly the most engaging of my lifetime.

It feels as if I have entered a time, perhaps an age where the kind of “cultural alchemy” generated by The Centre is called for, to “enchant, refresh, and reanimate” ways of living that foster ecological sustainability, justice and connectedness to counter pervasive globalization, multi-level violence and devastation increasingly waged against communities and ecosystems worldwide. It was with some sense of my own need for a shift, and deepened learning that I sought residency at the Tobago Centre, carrying with me a recessed thinking about the development of a 21st Century psychological paradigm that acknowledges the theories and practices within the discipline that have reproduced violence and suffering, in order to develop a framework that generates epistemologies that are restorative, reparative and recuperative. I imprecisely imagined that such a paradigm where “spirit enters,” to include ways of knowing that have been marginalized and silenced by systems of domination, yet survived, and carry sophisticated technologies, expressed through ritual, and are highly functional in cultures throughout the world, considering the African diaspora in particular. For those of us who are called in this direction, our challenge is to find those who are willing to teach the intricacies of spiritual practice.

“Knowing how to create such rituals is the special expertise of healers, curanderas, griots.”

Residency at the Centre provided the conditions and support for my ideas to take root, and Iya’s daily teachings organically displayed many of the ingredients for, and tools with which to build this vision, both technically and pedagogically. What I did not anticipate was that they would also evoke an intense unfolding of personal awakening and a profoundly emotional rupture that is still resonant months after my return.

I could not predict the shock and feelings of utter disorientation, heartache, and at times revulsion that would accompany my return to the US after a little over two months. The cold in NY, Christmas holiday consumption, and frenetic pace toward personal satisfactions of all kinds felt like an unmanageable onslaught. At the same time that “feeling of grace” found its way back inside of me, and I would soon uncover benevolent surprises, courageous empathy, allies of legend, unforeseen openings and glimpses of a divinity I thought left behind. What is also true is that I left Tobago not with a feeling of departure from a welcomed experience, but with the feeling of being torn away from a familiar comfort, a remembered home place, perhaps a refuge, and not for the first time.

I have a sustained a commitment to the Centre and Iya’s vision for its development and continue to offer support in any way that is useful. I offer immeasurable gratitude and deep reverence to Iya for her generosity in teaching by example, how to weave the sacred in all aspects of life, and live in spiritual devotion and dedication to a purpose. I also thank you for opening space for reflection, sharing personal insight and correction, and for your consistent inquiry and expressed caring about how I experienced each moment of my time in Tobago.



More reflections from 2014

Friends of the Centre the Dominican Republic and the Netherlands via Suriname got a taste of Centre life and experienced the magic of the Land and of Tobago!!!  Below are their reflections.4Mujeresplants_gloria

. . . When the spiritual is put to work in the everyday. . .

We—Maggy, Alta and I—got up in the dark of pre-dawn at 3 a.m., Monday, November 16, in order to catch the red-eye flight, leaving Suriname at 6 in the morning for Trinidad and Tobago. Packed with all kinds of goodies: a heavy, deepfrozen fish-pom dish, Iya’s favorite, made on a charcoal fire by Cieske, Maggy’ sister, tucked deep into our suitcases and Surinamese leaves of sangrafu and bitawiri, we feel happy to be sharing the bounty of Suriname with Tobago. I choose not to pay attention to the impossible hour of the flight, ignoring the colonial arithmetic that positions flights to the former metropole, the Netherlands, at a comfortable 7.30 in the evening. Speeding to Johan Adolf Pengel Airport, dogs howling after us, we pass on the way parties of –what seem to be—Brazilian golddiggers and Indigenous women in the open fields, in the little villages of Lelydorp, Bernarddorp and Wit’ Santi. We arrive in Tobago at 10 a.m. and are to spend the next eleven days at the Tobago Centre.

. . . When the spiritual is put to work in the everyday. . .

From the moment of our welcome embraces at the airport, we formed an egbe, a spiritual collective. We started and ended the day with meditation; whether it was working on the land, moving house, taking care of people around us, preparing meals, conversing about spirituality or about our work, readying ourselves for a tour of the island, we were a collective, getting the work at hand done in a most harmonious way. On the first day, we manage to move a heavy iron structure, meant for the planting and sprouting of plants, to a more convenient place, working in call-and-response fashion. Since it is the rainy season, we were anticipating look forward to see the seedlings grow, while we are still here.

Different as we all are, with different skills, interests, knowledges and measures of staying power, it was a rare experience to live what it means when the spiritual is put to work in the everyday. Living in different parts of the world, Amsterdam, Santo Domingo, New York City, Toronto and Tobago, we as Black women have all learned to function with a knife between our teeth. But now, as if by instinct, we know that mode of being would not get us very far in Tobago. Indeed, it would be counterproductive. Almost inadvertently, Audre Lorde’s essay “Black Women Hatred and Anger,” kept presenting itself to me: the various ways in which we as black women have learned to use our sharpest knives against one another. For me putting down my armour was no small thing. The new openness felt awkward at times, too much nakedness as it were, not being able to fall back on the usual defense mechanisms—big mouth, critical remarks, impatience, and lack of generosity. We all, so it felt, were motivated to be open towards each other and to the work that needed to be done for making the Centre a reality. This is why we had come: to help ground the Centre’s vision and to help Iya materialize her dream, which for all of us, too, held out a promise for other, more gratifying, more wholesome, ways of being in the world.

. . .When the spiritual is put to work in the everyday. . .

It becomes clear that enormous energy is liberated to be put to creative and expressive use. As Audre says, “there is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in defining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.” (Lorde, Sister Outsider). At the heart of it all there is the land. On the land where our ancestors toiled as enslaved, we now find ourselves on a beautiful expanse, weaving its way low down by the roadside, to high on the mountain top. The land, sprinkled with towering bamboo and royal palms, encircled by a forceful river, now swollen by the rains is, and will be, a companion in healing and the envisioning of another way of life. We pour libations and the ancestors give their permission for each of us to enter and to use what is needed to make the place to their liking. I am once again reminded of the strength and tenacity of African religions in the Diaspora, the parallel incantations, gestures, intonations and understandins we use during libations in the Afro-Surinamese Winti religion. These understandings are beautifully described by Senegalese poet Birago Diop in “Le souffle des ancetres” a poem turned song and made popular by Sweet Honey in the Rock: “Those that have died have never, never left; the dead are not under the earth.” They are in the water, in the trees, in the shadows, in us. One day, sunflowers for Oshun will grow by the river, endless streams of them, just as in the South of France, dancing to the breath of the wind, their heads always looking up, full of hope.

. . .When the spiritual is put to work in the everyday. . .

For Maggy, the liberation of energy showed up in the intensity with which she painted, whenever she had free time during these days. There is a mystical quality to the painting “Land and Sea,”, her gift to the Centre, which she made in three sittings: a tree laden with symbols and meanings, presiding over a turquoise-greenblue Tobagonian sea. The companion piece, which she painted back in Paramaribo, is “Ceremony,” which depicts Yemoja, on the day we went to the ocean to celebrate the recovery of Ms. Merle and the completion of my book. They both accompany this reflection.

For Alta, it was the first time in seventeen years she had found the courage to bathe in the ocean again. She played in the waves like a little whale, exuding joy, mischief, as if she were the 13-year-old girl she once was. That same joy was present in her creative cooking, sustaining all of us with deliciously wholesome meals every single day: lentils, different kinds of fish, provisions, always with mango, papaya and pineapple as delightful pickle. I loved our egbe.

I was mentally exhausted when I got to Tobago, just having finished writing my book White Innocence and delivering a keynote presentation in Paramaribo. But my spirits were immediately lifted. . Even my pulling a muscle in my left back could not dampen that. Iya is the one who held it all together, by her wisdom, her teachings and nighttime Yoruba stories of Efùwàpé, who kept us up and discussing the twists and turns of her in search of her destiny. Iya who dares to dream big and fearlessly of a centre where indigenous knowledge of the use of plants and herbs is wed to a spiritual practice. As Audre says, “When I dare to put my words into the service of my vision, then it does not matter whether I am afraid.”

. . .When the spiritual is put to work in the everyday. . .

And the seedlings came up gloriously. . .

Gloria Wekker

Paramaribo, December 2014


Maggy, Gloria, Alta


Lobster Dinner



Iya and the heavy planting table








Women-Piaba tells her story

This article was originally published on the Stabroek News, and has been reposted on with the author’s permission, Chelsea Fung, who was one of the students and panelists at the “Reflections: Medicinal Plants and Healing Practices.

By Chelsea Fung

During my last semester at the University of Toronto, I decided to enrol in a course taught by Professor M Jacqui Alexander, a renowned Trinidadian author and feminist. The journey of writing a book for the course, Migrations of the Sacred, evolved into a transformative experience for my own consciousness as my research on just one plant, the woman-piaba, led to many revelations about my ancestral histories, cultural traditions and ultimately revealed another avenue of thinking.

I have lived the majority of my life in Guyana. I was born in England, and I have lived in Toronto for the past four years, gaining what many would perhaps describe as a ‘recognized,’ ‘respected,’ ‘conventional’ education. Nevertheless, I am Guyanese. And this was the primary motivation for choosing the woman-piaba plant for my research, so that I could have an opportunity to extensively explore what the plant means to people and communities in my homeland, in my region, in my world and to myself.

My grandfather would sing Bill Rogers’ 1929 calypso song, ‘West Indian Weed Woman‘ at birthday parties or ‘limes.‘ The song is about an old woman selling ‘weed’ (herbaceous plants) on the streets of Georgetown. In the song, Rogers lists several weeds that the woman had in her basket and the list begins with “Man-Piaba, Woman-Piaba, tantan fall back and lemon grass” and so on. This song was my initial inspiration in my quest for woman-piaba knowledge. I then came across the Harry Belfonte ‘Man-Piaba‘ 1954 calypso song that infringed the lyrical work of Bill Rogers and it is now the song that is known for popularizing the woman-piaba plant in Jamaica and the US.

Woman-piaba (which is our vernacular name in Guyana), Hyptis pectinata (scientific name), is native to tropical America according to American sources, and native to West Africa according to African and Caribbean sources. Thus the origin of the plant is somewhat determined or claimed by the people who first ‘discovered’ its multiple medicinal and spiritual uses. Nevertheless, H pectinata is widely naturalized throughout the earth’s tropical zone. Woman-piaba belongs to the Lamiaceae family along with mint, lavender and basil.

Within the Caribbean, Brazil, tropical America and West Africa, woman-piaba is used for various medicinal and healing purposes. The Patamona Indians in Kamana, Guyana, boil the leaves and use the water for treating ‘bush yaws‘ or boil the whole plant and drink the water for tubercolosis. According to well-known Maroon herbalist in Jamaica, Ivelyn Harris, the Maroon cure for hot flashes is a piaba tea, which is used by many women in the Rio Grande Valley when they are going through menopause. In Mampong, Ghana, the leaf is ground to a paste and mixed with kaolin in water and taken three times daily for vomiting in pregnancy. These are amongst numerous other medicinal and healing uses, only few of which are disclosed.

From my research and engagement with woman-piaba, it is evident that there is not one documented history of this plant but many oral histories, some of which have been succinctly disclosed in different literary texts. In order to unearth this plant’s story, I had to gather information from the fragmented, scant literature to form linkages with the traditional knowledge and oral narratives that elders and herbalists shared with me. One of woman-piaba’s histories that I have traced includes transnational crossings from Ghana to Guyana.

The plant itself is gendered in the context of its uses and nomenclature used by Guyanese people, as the stalks that have the flowers and buds are used for varying symptoms or difficulties associated with menstruation, menopause and pregnancy, hence the reason for calling it ‘woman-piaba.‘ However, the stalks that have the broad, serrated leaves are used in decoctions such as aphrodisiacs for men, hence the name, ‘man-piaba‘. I initially thought that woman-piaba and man-piaba were two different plants. However, as Mr Tiwari, one of the elders I spoke with put it, they “are tubers of the same origin – man-piaba being ‘hard’ and woman-piaba being soft.

Mr Rampersaud Tiwari, a retired senior executive level officer of the Guyana Public Service who now lives in Toronto, was invited by Professor M Jacqui Alexander to share with our class his personal memories on local traditional community care and healing, drawing on his own experiences with early African and Indian elders in Buxton, his native village. Mr Tiwari shared that many early post-emancipation African women in Buxton village were employed in agricultural work in the sugar cane fields and in their own small farm holdings. Among these women, there were Nanas (sometimes referred to as Mamas or Gang Gangs) who were skilled in preparing herbal remedies and other cures for various ailments in mothers, infants, children and adults. One outstanding elder was Nana Fiffee, often referred to as the ‘Bush Medsin Lady.‘ Nana Fiffee was said to be “Akan, pure-blooded Ghanaian,” Mr Tiwari disclosed, and this was the point that transported my mind back to a text called, The useful plants of west tropical Africa by H M Burkill.

After re-reading the text, I made an instant historical connection as some of the common Ghanaian vernacular names that were indicated in the text were almost identical to ours in Guyana, which suggests that there must have been either a trans-Atlantic migration of knowledge or of the plant itself (or both) through enslaved people and their descendants like Nana Fiffee. I then recalled Ivelyn Harris, who is famous for her piaba tea, mentioned on her website that her ancestors were the Koromantyn of West Africa. Mavis Campbell and George Ross noted in a book, Back to Africa, that many of the Koromantyn and Akan people of Ghana were shipped to the New World through the Atlantic slave trade and this information made the connection even clearer as Jamaica and Guyana both use the same common name, ‘woman-piaba.’

People who travel from Guyana to Toronto often leave the plants and practices behind, but the knowledge is never forgotten. Woman-piaba has not reached Toronto in its entirety, but it has travelled in the minds and spirits of those who know what it is, how it looks and how it is used. I visited the Caribbean Corner store in Kensington Market, Toronto to see if woman-piaba was there. After realizing that it was not there, I asked people in the store if they knew the plant. Ms Yvonne, who works there, recalled the plant from the Harry Belafonte song that I mentioned earlier, but she did not know anything else about it. One elderly man with a Jamaican accent responded positively by saying that he knows the plant well, he showed me how tall it grew with his hands and said that they would boil the leaves and drink it to “feel good,” but was unable to tell me how or why. From these oral narratives and histories of woman- and man-piaba it is evident that the knowledge of the plant has travelled certainly from Jamaica and Guyana and resides within the memory of their diaspora in Toronto.

Through my research of the broader context of indigenous and traditional spirituality, I began to understand the power of the Sacred, the connections between the mind, body and spirit and I recognized that these three elements constitute a holistic cosmology that is never devoid of psychic, political, or socioeconomic questions. Ideologies of development and progress conceive the sacred cosmology as ‘tradition,’ the beginning of a linear, hierarchical process with modernity being the endpoint. Such processes affect traditional ways of thinking by providing no place or space for these sacred oral histories, these spiritual and traditional practices. Thus, the underlying reason for scant documentation on sacred practices in relation to woman-piaba and surface-level disclosure of the Sacred in discussions with herbalists, is based on the very premise that secularism has deemed the Sacred as backward and ancient and thus disallowed the indigenous spirituality and traditions to enter its cosmology.

Through the process of tracing and tracking information I gradually began to realize that sacred plants such as woman-piaba engender another level of consciousness if we are to fully grasp their significance, and to understand with humility what they can teach us. The plants are being called to do not only spiritual work, but also historical work. Through the plants, we come to understand the colonial history of plant knowledge and its spiritual and medicinal usages. The concept of species dominance wherein humans have superior intelligence to the rest of the living world, would be turned upside down and inside out for us humans to see the sacred intelligence of plants. This allows us to envision a world in which knowledge could begin with a single plant, like woman-piaba, and radically open us up to a world that we never knew existed, allowing us to re-vision what has been abandoned/shunned/erased – the Sacred.

I believe that my journey (and the journeys of my classmates) is important to the academic community as the knowledge that is taught and learnt in spaces like the classrooms of a university creates a sealed space that does not usually allow itself to be disrupted by other worldviews or cosmologies. The lessons of indigenous knowledge and spiritual practices have practical and intellectual significance for academia and the rest of the world. I believe that the work I have done is important to me, my own consciousness, as it has progressively transformed the ways in which I receive and interpret information that is presented to me; it has transformed my own subjectivity.

My reflection and the reflections of my colleagues that were shared after our journeys really substantiated the fact that the plants we chose to research and engage, actually chose us. I started out this class thinking that I had chosen the woman-piaba. I ended it realizing the beautiful and simple truth: that the woman-piaba had chosen me. The plant had a story to tell. I have a long way to go still, to understand why I had been selected, and what this means in the unfolding journey of my own life.

Sharing stories of self-discovery and healing through medicinal plants

Student Books on Medicinal Plants

Student Books on Medicinal PlantsThe lounge at the Institute for Women and Gender Studies at the University of Toronto came alive with an excited group of about 50 people, students, alumnae (Sara Mohammed and Danielle Smith) friends, (Mr. Rampersaud Tiwari, Inderpal Wig)) parents (Samina Jamal) and faculty (Alissa Trotz, Jin-Kyung Park, Marieme Lo, June Larkin) assembled for the panel discussion, Reflections: Medicinal Plants and Healing Practices.

Eight students (Shequita Thompson, Jesse Crombeen, Jenny Eun Young Choi, Jeff Tanaka, Zainab Jamal, Chelsea Fung, Minnu Tom and Simone Akyianu) represented their peers from  two courses, Migrations of the Sacred and Aboriginal, Black and Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars, both of which focused on the voice of subjects who do not appear to be subjects at all—Plants.  They talked about their three month journey over the course of the semester, the plants they had chosen to research, the sacred lives of communities of women in various parts of the world, their initial skepticism about whether plants had anything at all to teach them about gender, race, class and the politics of migration, and how that skepticism morphed into new understandings of the ways in which their own lives were mirrored in the essence of plants.

The teachings were profound.  We learned that yarrow—characterized as a weed, is a potent metaphor for showing how ‘othering’ works—how we rush to discard something that is indispensable to our healing; about the ability of gingko balboa to point to our skittish relationship to memory, having withstood, along with a handful of plants, the US bombing of Japan in August 1945; and how turmeric eased the inflammation and pain of families who were traumatized during the painful dislocations of partition.  We heard that students had to dig deep into the buried and negated histories in their families for the wisdom of their mothers, fathers and grandmothers to unearth plant stories that many believed had disappeared or were no longer needed. Each story added a strand for us to braid together the scattered pieces of living, with plants as our foundation.  Here are just a few of the reflections of that memorable evening and of those journeys:


I do not know where to begin, except to say how thankful I am for having the opportunity to engage with Professor Alexander and the rest of my peers throughout the semester, and more particularly at the Reflections gathering. Several of my peers shared their journey of writing, researching and getting to know “their” plant. Listening to those who presented before me, I realized my own story was only bits and pieces of every one else’s. I was able to see where our truths overlap, and where they became blurry and sometimes tainted by our own fears. When it was time for me to share my own experience with the willow, I was nervous, but I knew that I also had to take a risk. And I am glad that I did. Sharing what the willow taught me was one of the hardest things I have ever done. It was also a necessary part of the healing and self- care the willow had opened up for me. At the end of the night, I noticed everyone just standing around each other, not saying a lot, and yet saying so much. No one wanted to leave. Papers, exams, final tests lurking in the background, and yet no one wanted to leave. It was beautiful. I remember thinking to myself: I have just experienced something I want so badly to hold onto. I am a human being, and I crave the love, knowledge, support and presence of others. I thank Professor Alexander for this. For bringing us all together to share and to connect in a way that we did not want to separate, and where we each saw a bit of ourselves in the Other. I think that is one of the most important things I have taken from the evening and from writing the book altogether.

– Simone Akyianu


The Jujuba trees, and all other medicinal plants, embody physical, emotional, mental and spiritual restoration.  Their fluidity can mend our fragmentation and soothe the pain that arises from not remembering or not knowing what we have forgotten.. Reflections was a night where our personal journeys became a collective spiritual weave, embracing different sources of knowledge and wisdom, especially those that come from various communities, oral histories,  as well as the medicinal plants themselves. We spoke to our shared desire for wholeness and healing by acknowledging the uncertainty that accompanies all of us in the journey. I witnessed how the plants were, have been, and will continue to do the healing work that they were meant to do. . . bringing communities together and creating histories of wholeness and restoration.

– Jenny Eun Young Choi


I can’t adequately explain how disenchanted and frustrated I was with all I had experienced in the academy, but this class has really reinvigorated me, and provided me with so much valuable knowledge. I realize how much thinking I now have to do, for the sacred is something I’ve consistently discredited and I now know how much value it holds. . .The ginkgo is working to heal my amnesia, the deep ancient contours of its leaves are still bringing me to the mixed-race stories of my ancestry. Reflections allowed me to share the urgency of these stories; and created a place to put forth the forgotten stories of my genealogy. By sharing with my classmates, I was able to restore the sacred to my memory, actively contradicting the academic spaces that have long discounted the sacred spiritual knowledge of Black, Indigenous and immigrant women. The conversation allowed me to value the ginkgo’s teachings, a reminder of the ways in which I often  devalue living things, such as ginkgo, that are not human. By hearing the stories of others I was reminded of my own complicity in the [current] environmental degradation. The gingko and the evening of reflection reminded me that we must put effort into re-examining the very foundation of the processes upon which our society, our ways of knowing, and our lives are built.

– Jeff Tanaka


When my classmates and I were first assigned a project dealing with women and the sacred and spiritual uses of plants . . . I knew immediately that I wanted to explore the sacred dimensions of frankincense, familiar to me as part of my cultural inheritance as a diasporic Somali woman. I wanted to delve into the classical histories of the Horn of Africa, of the female pharaoh Hatsheput’s voyage to Somalia—the land of Punt—to collect frankincense and myrrh.  I wanted to describe the frankincense induced trances and offerings of the women of the saar cult, to cast out the spirits causing spiritual and physical pain to affected women. I wanted to acknowledge my own subjectivity as someone brought up within a Somali cultural context, without compromising the distance of the academic historian’s approach to the study of frankincense as an ‘object’ of inquiry.  This approach would change, however, when I found myself in Ottawa after the death of my 20 year old cousin Khalid and for the first time, the subject of tacsi (condolences) — now the bereaved family during the mourning period before burial, known as the geeri.  Though I mostly kept to a bedroom upstairs with my siblings and cousins, all of us unwilling or unable to sit with the mourners downstairs or greet the hundreds who came by over those days to give their tacsi, I/we could not escape the burning incense that filled the house, a reminder of death and the otherworldly.

– Safia Omar   


My involvement in Professor Alexander’s course Aboriginal, Black and Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars at the University of Toronto and as part of the Women and Gender Studies program, was an enlightening experience.  Professor Alexander carries much wisdom and brings unconventional teaching methods to the university classroom.  Students come together to learn from one another through sharing, coupled with readings that guide you through concepts and ideas that create points of intersection between different peoples in terms of race, class and gender.  The main project, the creation of a book on a specific plant, brought the elements of stories, community and healing together as part of a process of decolonization and revitalizing Indigenous knowledges.  As an Anishnaabe Kwe, from Southern Ontario, I chose to do work on my book about Giizhik, the Northern/Eastern White Cedar plant, which is also called the “Tree of Life” and is a sacred medicine of the Anishnaabe people.  Through exploring the stories, art, and ceremonial practices, as well as the uses by other Indigenous and Non-Indigenous peoples involving cedar and other plants, I was able to really begin to understand and relate plant experiences to human experiences.  In Anishnaabe philosophy everything is alive and connected, this is something I am comprehending more and more, and the experience I have had in this course has been one that has helped me along my journey in going beyond those limitations that I have had in past educational experiences. Chi Meegwetch!

–  Jessica Keeshig-Martin


So much happens when we move away from species dominance into the terrain of surrender to the knowledge that plants are poised to gift to us.

Students each produced a book on a medicinal plant of their choice, among them:

  • Giizhik (eastern or northern white cedar)
  • Oregano
  • Yarrow
  • Weeping emu-bush (Dogwood)
  • Tulsi (Holy Basil)
  • Ginseng
  • Dong Quai
  • Bloodroot
  • Woman-Piaba
  • Aloe Vera
  • Jujube (Red date)
  • Neem
  • Sweet Broom
  • Lemon grass
  • Sorossi  (bitter melon)
  • Shado Beni
  • Plantain
  • Pride of Barbados (Peacock flower)
  • Ginkgo
  • Shado Beni (Eryngium Foetidum)
  • Willow
  • Coconut Palm
  • Queen Anne’s Lace
  • Valerian
  • Guava
  • Anise
  • Strawberry
  • Ginger
  • Frankincense
  • Cumin (Jeera)
  • Turmeric
  • Moringa Oleifera
  • Cinchona Plant (Quinine bark)
  • Mugwort (Wormwood)

Alyssa Jones read on behalf of both classes:

Tonight, the Migrations of the Sacred and Aboriginal, Black, and Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars classes have gathered together to present the Tobago Center for the Study and Practice of Indigenous Spirituality with handmade books on medicinal plants.  We hope you enjoy our books, which are little pieces of ourselves that we collectively present to you.  We wish you all the best, and hope that the spiritual journeys that we have taken as we made our books provide you with the same experience as you read them.  On behalf of my classmates, thank you for providing a perfect future home for our books.  We know the sacred dimensions of our plants will be forever valued at the Center and we hope to come visit one day.

We mingled, ate, drank the tea of sorossi which Jane Montague  made, each of us taking away seeds for planting, many chosen from the very plants the students had already brought into their lives.  After some weeks, Chelsea Fung, Thuy Thi Bich Thi Truong, Victoria Frangione   and Jenny Eun Young Choi carefully wrapped the books for shipping—Mark Chatarpal, as always, the faithful photographer.

The Tobago Centre at the Lost Lyrics’ Alternative Education Conference

The following article is reposted with permission from the Sway Magazine blog

Lost Lyrics hosts alternative education conference

7 June 2012
By Tendisai Cromwell

This past weekend, the alternative education initiative Lost Lyrics hosted the conference The Roots of the Rose which marked their five-year anniversary. On Saturday June 2, Ryerson University’s Student Learning Centre was bustling with attendees eager to share in the discussion on the symposium’s theme: Building an Alternative Education Movement. Ideas were shared through workshops and lectures on hip hop education, indigenous knowledge, understanding money, gender and race, among other topics. This conference facilitated meaningful dialogue between educators, community leaders, artists and community members. It also presented a profound challenge to conventional thought about education and provided the intellectual tools to re-conceptualize it, particularly for people of colour. The following day at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the conference culminated in the Live Report Card presentation by the graduates of the Lost Lyrics program in the form of art, music and dance.

Dr. Darrick Smith is an American educator and founder of the alternative education program TryUMF (Trying to Uplift My Folks).
He gave a passionate lecture where he explored mainstream and alternative forms of education, capitalism and social justice issues with emphasis on the continued struggle of people of colour in navigating the education system.

Spontaneous jam sessions took place outside of the lecture halls and classrooms. Nothing could more naturally embody one of Lost Lyrics’ aims — the marriage of education with various forms of artistic expression.

Pastor David Lewis-Peart and Sarah Beech of Seed II Soil facilitated an interactive workshop exploring the meaning of money. They challenged popular notions and debunked myths about its value with the aim of encouraging critical thought about people’s attitudes towards money.

As part of a course, four former students of University of Toronto Professor Jacqui Alexander (pictured below) were required to pick a plant of personal significance in order to explore diasporic experiences. They each revealed their individual experiences of this process which — in becoming a spiritual journey — transcended their academic goals.

An attendee displays jujube seeds passed around by a speaker as she spoke about what the tree meant for her in the exploration of her Korean ancestry. As an amusing anecdote, she recounted being made to drink jujube tea as a child which her grandmother believed would tame her spirited nature.

Professor Jacqui Alexander (right) expressed complete gratitude for everyone’s attendance explaining in good humour that the dropout rate for her course had been high. She is also the Founding Director of the Tobago Center for the Study and Practice of Indigenous Spirituality and along with a dedicated team, she is currently undertaking a project to grow and catalogue medicinal plants in Tobago.

U of T students make and gift books to The Tobago Center

Students at the University of Toronto in the Department of Women’s Studies have made books on a wide range of medicinal plants.  These books were their final assignments in two courses: Migrations of the Sacred, and Aboriginal, Black and Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars.  The students will present the books as gifts to the Tobago Center in a gathering scheduled for Wednesday, April 4 at 6:00pm.

Update: Read about the presentations and the students’ reflections here