Dr Kumar Mahabir: “Our Diversity is our Strength”

For researcher Dr Kumar Mahabir, Trinidad & Tobago’s culture is fertile ground. He talked to Debbie Jacob about his work

–Dr Kumar Mahabir. Photograph courtesy Dr Mahabir

I think we are very fortunate – if not blessed – to be living in a place with such a diverse culture. This is our strength. You can find almost every religion and cultural practice in Trinidad & Tobago. We have almost every brand of Christianity – even Mormons. There are all kinds of Islamic sects. You have the Orisha faith here, and all kinds of groupings of Hindus. We have such a wonderful, vibrant, colourful diversity in this rainbow society, as South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu described it. There are so many religions and so many ethnic groups.

But the boundaries are blurred in this society, and that is what is so interesting.

It’s also a paradox. There are people here who have never been to a festival or ceremony other than the ones [of the faith] in which they grew up.

All of this is what led me to study anthropology. Even without knowing about anthropology, I was involved in anthropology. When I was young, I would visit mosques, Spiritual Baptist temples, Orisha thanksgivings, just to observe and write about what I saw. I didn’t know this was called anthropology until I did some readings a few years before I went abroad.

After I graduated with my MPhil in literatures in English from the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, I spent six years doing my PhD in anthropology at the University of Florida. It was the first time I was doing any formal study of anthropology, because at that time UWI did not offer a single course in anthropology.

Over time, I became interested in medical anthropology, how healthcare manifests itself culturally. People have always used alternative forms of healing. Even prayer is considered a form of healing. Today, ancient forms of medicine and healthcare like acupuncture and yoga have become popular. Traditional medicine and healthcare never really disappeared. It has just been repackaged.

You can see how these traditional forms re-emerge in modern movements. For instance, there has been a brand of Christianity in the western world, the evangelical movement, which is quite popular. Central to that movement is alternative healing. That is what pastors do: “heal” people of psychiatric, physical or emotional ailments. The more you see technology growing and modernising medicine, the more you see alternative medicine re-emerging. They go hand in hand.

I have seen this relationship between traditional and modern medicine since I was a boy growing up in a village called Plum Mitan, on the margins of the Nariva swamp in southeast Trinidad. It was a very remote place. We saw manatees, anacondas and cascaduras. We were far away – about 14 miles – from the nearest health centre in Sangre Grande. People had to come up with their own remedies in case of an emergency. There was more contact with traditional medicine than modern medicine because of the challenges people faced: the distance to hospitals, healthcare centres and doctors. They had to be ingenious to come up with their own remedies.

In Plum Mitan, there were large-scale rice fields that were infested with scorpions, so I could identify with Sonny Ladoo’s book No Pain Like This Body. I knew people who would say prayers for a child stung by a scorpion. I’m not saying the person would have been healed by prayers, but there would have been certain medical interventions as well to prevent the poison from spreading. There might have been a tamarind seed or a stone used at the spot where the child was stung. People would have caught the scorpion, roasted it and given it to the child to eat.

In the villages you would see an elderly woman who would massage for nara, or dislocation of the abdomen, when someone lifted a heavy object. Most children would be delivered at home. From a family of seven, I was the only one delivered in the hospital.

Products that people used traditionally when I was growing up are now being looked at in a whole new light. In Trinidad villages, people cooked with coconut oil. Doctors said this was bad for you, but that myth has been debunked. If you had a headache in my village, mothers would sap children’s heads with coconut oil. That is still very prevalent in the villages today. Banana leaves would be soaked in herbs and wrapped around the head to ward off headaches.

Since I have become an anthropologist I have collected stories about herbal remedies, and I have just scratched the surface. Most of my research is on East Indian cultural heritage. I have written seven books, many of them featuring East Indian recipes, and the medicinal and edible plants used by East Indians of Trinidad & Tobago. Right now, I schedule my classes at UTT (the University of Trinidad & Tobago) from 8 am to 8 pm two days a week so that I can be out there in the field doing research. [Mahabir is an assistant professor of anthropology at UTT.]

I have always advocated that we need to do more field research, as opposed to looking up information that has already been gathered, in libraries. Young people in this computer age feel that everything can be found inside a computer or inside a library. But there is so much information out there waiting to be discovered.

It grieves me that so many traditions are dying with elderly folk. The library is always there, but these folk aren’t. They vanish, they die, and with them part of the culture goes. There is so much work we can be doing in anthropology in Trinidad & Tobago.