Various definitions and concepts of folk medicine have been put forward. It will be sufficient here to mention a concept of Afrikaans folk medicine and folk remedies given by Schulz and based on his research into the background of this subject: `Folk medicine includes any medium, treatment or ritualistic act which is applied or carried out to cure or avert illness; and is administered only as a direct consequence of the traditions and lore of a particular country. It is practised in all good faith by laymen whose conscious intention is to prevent and cure illness.’ Folk medicine is traditional and unorganised and is not on rationalised scientific or pseudoscientific systems.
The emergence of folk medicine in South Africa was most noticeable among the Trek Boers beyond the Boland Mountains. They had to become self-reliant as there was no local medical help. Upcountry folk in general soon acquired a knowledge of the medicinal value of herbs and plants that grew in the veld, and many of these they learnt to use as purgatives, emetics and diuretics. By 1850 over one hundred different species of indigenous Cape plants were regularly used by Trek Boers and others, and by Coloured folk, as home remedies. There was not a colonist who would not rather be his own physician and seek help only in extremity; hence the statement by a young physician at Swellendam about 1812 that nobody could subsist in those parts by the ordinary practice of medicine (Laidler). Apart from the use of herbs the country folk had great faith in patent medicines. Most homes possessed a `huisapotheek’ prepared by the apothecaries of Cape Town.
The Voortrekkers carried with them a medicine-chest (medisyne trommel) of small size containing bottles of medicines, plasters and ointments. A list of the traditional household remedies known as `Dutch medicines’ used by Trek Boers, the Voortrekkers and country folk in general is given by Burrows. Certain ‘Dutch medicines’ are used even today and must be of a standard laid down in the current editions of the British Pharmacopoeia or British Pharmaceutical Codex. A list of these traditional remedies and the corresponding modern equivalents is given in the South African Medical Journal of I June 1957.
It includes bloedstillende druppels (tincture of ferric perchloride), boegoe-essens (tincture of buchu), doepa (benzoin), doepa-olie (balsam of Peru), duiwelsdrek (asafoetida), grouvomitief (prepared ipecacuanha), Hoffmannsdruppels (spirit of ether), kinderpoeier(compoundpowder ofrhubarb), miangolie (balsam of Peru), pampoensalf (ointment of yellow oxide of mercury), rooilaventel (compound tincture of lavender), ruitersalf (dilute ointment of mercury), rooiminie (lead monoxide), sinkingsdruppels (colchicum wine), staalpille (pills of iron carbonate), sterksalf (methyl salicylate ointment), turlington (compound tincture of benzoin – Friar’s balsam), kanferolie (camphor liniment), opodeldoc (soap liniment), paregorie (camphorated opium tincture), rabarberpoeier (powdered rhubarb), teerolie (creosote), witkinapoeier (quinine sulphate) and a number of others. The rapid advances of modern drug therapy have rendered most of these traditional pharmacopoeial and folk remedies obsolete.
The `huisapotheek’ remedies were used empirically and mainly for symptomatic treatment. Purging, vomiting and bloodletting were standard procedures for all kinds of illnesses. Apart from the `huisapoheek’ and the plants gathered in the veld, the Trek Boers used remedies corresponding to those used in folk medicine in other parts of the world. But some of their measures were unique (Burrows). Thus, in the treatment of pneumonia they wrapped the warm skin of a recently killed animal, usually a goat, round the patient’s chest and, when the hairs could no longer be pulled out, it was believed that the crisis was over. It is said that Paul Kruger, when a young man, developed an infected thumb which he himself amputated with a pocket-knife. As that failed to stop the inflammatory process, a buck was shot and Kruger put his thumb into it to get the benefit of the healing properties of the herbs being digested by the animal. When Dewald Pretorius (Andries Pretorius’s nephew) lost three fingers of his right hand in a shooting accident, his son-in-law amputated the shattered fragments with a hammer and chisel; cobwebs mixed with sugar were then applied as a dressing to the bleeding stumps. When Carolus Trichardt injured his leg with an axe, burnt aloe was applied and then a guinea-piece was placed on the wound; a goat was killed and an infusion of its bowel contents was given to him to drink. The body fluids and excreta of wild animals were believed to possess great healing properties. Thus, for example, vulture fat or leguan fat was used as an embrocation for lumbago; goat fat as an emollient for chapped hands and children’s faces. An infusion of goat’s dung was taken internally for measles and an infusion of wolf’s dung for a sore throat, tonsillitis or diphtheria. Even when medical aid became available and enlightened farmers were gaining confidence in professional skill available in towns and country districts, many folk, through ignorance and prejudice, preferred their own `middels’ and `boererate’. Many remedies, in addition to those already mentioned, were bought from the `wonderdoener’, a kind of quack doctor or nostrum-vendor who preceded the itinerant `doctors’. From them could be purchased medicines mostly of the variety prepared by the apothecaries in the large towns; these included emetic powders, rhubarb, aniseed pills, herbs, plants and blood-cleansing remedies.
The Voortrekkers appear to have been a remarkably healthy people. It is perhaps surprising that in a primitive community travelling across the country there should have been no outbreaks of disease. This was in part due to discipline which enforced the proper disposal of refuse and excreta, and the protection of the water-supply from pollution. The laager of wagons was always below the watering-place, and animals drank farther down at the general wash-place of the group. A sort of quarantine was maintained at times, for example, during the measles epidemic which ravaged Natal after the Cape epidemic in 1839.Midwifery was for a long time a folk practice in town and country, and doctors were consulted only about abnormal or complicated deliveries. Midwifery and children were handled in a ‘specialised’ manner; they were left to the womenfolk for treatment.
During the Dutch East India Company’s rule a woman could not, in terms of the Statutes of Batavia, act as a midwife unless she had been passed as competent by two of the Company’s surgeons. Even at a later period the practices of midwives included, besides midwifery, minor surgical procedures such as bloodletting.
The development of medicine in South Africa from the time of the Cape settlement, the diffculties of medical practice, the profound influence of the Cape apothecaries on medicine and medical practice, the popularity of patent medicines inland, and the earlier activities of the ‘wonderdoeners’, ‘meesters’, and itinerant ‘doctors’ who travelled among the Trek Boers are presented in detail by Burrows.
The White man, since his occupation of the subcontinent, has made great use of the wealth and variety of the local flora, and has accumulated through the centuries a great many popular remedies. How rich Bantu, Hottentot and Bushman lore is in this respect has only recently been recognised. These remedies are still in common use but much of the folk medicine of the tribes is vanishing.