Breathing new life into traditional healing
For thousands of years, Aboriginal people turned to their land for care and comfort in times of sickness. The land, its flora and fauna provided everything, including medicine.
Now, a new initiative literally foaming away quietly in the remote Aboriginal communities of Toomelah and Boggabilla is breathing new life into the practice of traditional healing. Whole families, sometimes five generations deep, are now embracing bush medicine for everyday use.
It all started with a Hunter New England Health research project, led by Population Health’s Kristy Crooks, Susan Thomas, Kylie Taylor and Peter Massey, aimed at improving skin health of Aboriginal people living in remote communities.
“Data shows that due to a range of factors, including warm, humid conditions, poor hygiene education, housing conditions and sometimes poor infrastructure, contagious skin infections such as boils, scabies, eczema and school sores can be more common and more serious for Aboriginal people, particularly school-aged children,” Kristy says.
“So, at the community’s request, we consulted with 38 people in two communities – Toomelah and Boggabilla - using Participatory Action Research (PAR) to collect potential ideas to develop a more culturally appropriate treatment model for addressing skin conditions.”
From this research, a range of ideas surfaced. A project to investigate natural remedies to treat skin issues, rather than expensive pharmacy creams, officially kicked off. Families were provided with education on how to prevent skin conditions and a complimentary pack of products. This included products such as washing detergents, bandaids and two types of soap – a commercially-made tea tree soap and a traditional hand soap made by an Aboriginal woman in the nearby community of Moree. “Both the tea tree oil soap and traditional soaps were a hit,” Kristy says. “Lots of families came back to us and said it was nicer than many of the other soaps available in supermarkets.”
It didn’t take long for the community to flag that it had its own local, native plant - we will refer to it simply as the ‘healing bush’ for the purposes of this article, to be used instead of commercially-made products.
Traditionally, the bush’s leaves have been boiled and either used in a bath or taken by mouth by the spoonful to cure a range of ailments, including skin infections. One of the plant’s derivatives has been scientifically proven to have anti-microbial properties capable of curing infections including candida, or thrush as it’s more commonly known.
“From there I did a lot of Googling and a do-it-yourself crash course on how to make soap, substituting tea tree for the local native healing bush,” Kristy says.
The new soap was quickly embraced by the local people and its popularity has since skyrocketed.
Since Kristy and the team first tested the homemade soap recipe, members of the project team have partnered with staff from Pius X Aboriginal Corporation to hold three soap making workshops at Boggabilla Central School, teaching the next generation how to care for its skin using the local remedy.
While a formal project evaluation is a while off, significant improvements have been seen in skin health, particularly amongst school children, since the project started.
Health clinics are held at Boggabilla School at the same time every year. Usually quite a few of the kids have a skin condition of some sort, but this year there was not one out of 71 kids.
The project team doesn’t yet know if the anecdotal results are thanks to the creation of the soap or simply the improved education provided to the community, or both, but either way the project is clearly of benefit to the community.
“We know hand washing is important,” Kristy says. “But it’s been equally important to go through this wonderful process to incorporate local knowledge and practices, build cultural strength and foster the passing down of knowledge across generations.”