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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.

Reflections on “Revelations” Gathering

Revelations with M. Jacqui Alexander

Revelations with M. Jacqui AlexanderThe William Doo Auditorium at the University of Toronto was transformed on the evening of March 23, 2012 from about seven to midnight as we descended, many unknowingly, into the hold of a ship of the kind that would have taken millions captive from the African continent over the course of five centuries.  The evening, called Revelations, featured M. Jacqui Alexander reading three excerpts from an unpublished novel of the same name.   At the center of the story is a woman, Kitsimba, who numbered among the enslaved, captured from the Kôngo and brought to Trinidad via Martinique in the late 1700s, resurrected that evening to tell something that is impossible to tell.

And it is with this that Jacqui began, after being introduced by Alissa Trotz and Lisa Yoneyama, reading from a scant 19th century document—two paragraphs to be exact— describing the imprisonment of  ‘Thisbe’ for “. . . witchcraft, poisoning by means of charms, knowledge of the black arts, . . . and consorting with the devil.”   There was no trial.  Thisbe was tortured, hanged and beheaded, her head paraded through the streets of (then) Port-of-Spain and later exposed on the plantation in Diego Martin, the remainder of her body burnt on a pyre.  That was 1801.  Not coincidentally, all 200 of us were gathered at that auditorium on the heels of an immensely haunting performance of Obeah Opera (written by Nicole Brooks and staged by Theatre Archipelago)— about the life of Tituba, which was similarly shattered by charges of witchcraft in Salem, Masschusetts.  That was 1692.

The evening revealed that the trumped up accusations actually hid Thisbe’s true name, Kitsimba, and hid as well the healing work that she did with medicinal plants, her intimate knowledge of the power of plant medicine and the delicate balance she lived between the poison (of oppression) and the antidote of healing.  These revelations, Jacqui noted, were divulged in ways that are not widely sanctioned in the academy.  As Tituba said in Obeah Opera,  “the Moon call me back ah mi yard; the moon give me visions inna mi mind; dreams in mih sleep.”  Images come through a scent, a split second’s glimpse of an entire life in the flash of the Spirit, a faint shadow lying under a village, the movement of a feather—all the different ways we are made to see and know what we have forgotten.

Jacqui read three excerpts: The Crossing; a reflection from the decapitated head that speaks as it is paraded through the streets of Port-of-Spain into Diego Martin; and Kitsimba’s own ruminations of the body count in the massive trans-Atlantic wreckage that still haunts as its seeks its own archive.

There is an odor that has seeped into the pores of wood that no vinegar or carbon or sulphur can eliminate.  That odor bled into our pores.  We smelled the same.  Even after leaving the ship we would be outdoors and a strong gust would stir up from ground and bring that scent right back to us; we would look around, recognize it, loose our bearings.  A scent of grief and suffering and unspeakable loss so deep it could not be uttered, only issued involuntarily, so strong it could not be contained in one place.  We could not bear any more than we were bearing. We needed Wind and Rain and Moon and Ocean and Sun and River and Love to caress and wash and hold us.  We needed the scent of infinity.

Ras Iville’s corn soup warmed us that night.  It was not cold, but we, too, needed to be held.  Our follow up conversation, magically facilitated by Gail Lewis and Angela Robertson, was probing, deep, tearful, as happens when we allow our Souls to do the searching.

We left the auditorium at fifteen minutes before midnight.  The port of disembarkation was the same as the port of entry five hours earlier.  The Middle Passage is an inheritance of each of us, ALL of us, according to Kitsimba.  For her,  “healing work is the antidote to oppression.”  Among plants, the poison and the antidote are found in the same place; so too oppression and healing work are to be found in the same place. These medicinal plant gardens that are the foundation of the Tobago Center are an ancestral mandate for healing in the present.

 

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

Revelations with M. Jacqui Alexander

Revelations with M. Jacqui Alexander

Update: Read about the event on the post Reflections on “Revelations”

 

The Center’s founder and Board Member, M. Jacqui Alexander will be reading from her new work that speaks to the urgency of healing as an ancestral mandate for the present.  Come join us, and bring a friend on March 23rd at the William Doo Auditorium (45 Willcocks Street) at University of Toronto.

Revelations with M. Jacqui Alexander