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Jane Wolkowicz/MEDILL

Being a vegetarian is hard work in Kazakhstan. The summer potato crop is a staple that is essential to surviving the long, harsh winters.


When modern medicine and traditional culture collide

by Jane M. Wolkowicz
April 27, 2011


kaz

Jane Wolkowicz/MEDILL

Keeping warm in Siberia is a full-time job. My portrait as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kazakhstan. 

squat

Jane Wolkowicz/MEDILL

Kazakhs believe sitting on the cold ground causes infertility. Instead, even little kids squat.

“If you don't eat meat, you will die.”

When I arrived in the former Soviet Republic as a Peace Corps volunteer, I was a strict vegetarian transported into a meat obsessive culture. Still, I was initially shocked when students in my village school, kids who could barely utter five words of English, managed to translate my diet preferences to warn me about refraining from meat.

During the two years I spent teaching in the small Siberian village in northern Kazakhstan, my friends and neighbors gave me strange bits of their traditional medical advice on a weekly basis. Westerners who have never lived in the developing world would find much of it hard to accept.

I used to be one of them.

“Of course I won't die,” I assured my students. “Many people in America are vegetarian.”

Then winter came.

Winters in Siberia mean frigid temperatures that hover around minus 30 degrees for months at a time. Families who harvest their own vegetables in the warmer months rely solely on stored potatoes, onions and meat. Village stores remain essentially void of fresh fruit and vegetables until spring.

I learned quickly that not eating meat literally means nutritional starvation. Plus, Kazakhs say they need meat on their bones to stay warm.

Thirteen years of vegetarianism quickly went out the window.

But not all Kazakh ideas when it comes to health are so straightforward. Most of them are routed deep in cultural tradition and are the result of relying on home remedies since most families don't have access to reliable medical care. Drinking multiple cups of tea a day and keeping your keep warm become essential for survival.

Maryna Bazylevych, a medical anthropologist at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, explains that medicine is one of the cultural universals, meaning that each society has had to find a way to deal with medical problems as they arose.

“Every idea behind medicine is embedded in culture,” Bazylevych said. “Even if you compare the way medicine is practiced in the U.S. and Western Europe, we are products of our culture and even physicians here reiterate folk notions.”

Still, some of the folk ideas about medicine I heard in Kazakhstan continue to challenge my understanding to this day.

Here are some of the most fascinating:

Duck, duck, squat

I learned the hard way that trying to play a game of "duck, duck, goose" with elementary students in Kazakhstan simply does not work. Why? Because if you sit on the ground, you will never become pregnant. People advise that your ovaries will freeze as a result of sitting on the ground. A Kazakh person - even a child - will never sit on the ground, on a cold bench, or any other such surface. Instead, they squat.

Hot and cold


If you hadn't figured this out already, the majority of time in Siberia is spent trying to keep warm. But during the summer months, temperatures will actually reach into the 80s and 90s. Still, you will rarely see a Kazakh person drinking cold water or any other cold beverage. And forget about ice. They believe drinking cold liquid gives you a sore throat. For some reason, this rule does not apply to eating ice cream.

Secret hangover cure

Drinking too much vodka isn't really a problem, if you know how to handle the hangover. The secret? Drink fermented mare's milk. I cannot confirm if this really works.

Cold feet

I've been back in the U.S. over nine months now, but I still cringe at people who walk around barefoot. Kazakhs believe body heat escapes directly from the soles of your feet. Thus, they always wear house slippers.

Raspberry tea- the ultimate cure all


Kazakh culture centers around drinking tea several times a day. It is their ultimate go to for all health related issues. Stomach problems? Headache? Nothing a few cups of hot tea cannot fix. Sore throat? Drink tea with a little raspberry jam mixed in. It wasn't uncommon for my host father to drink seven cups of black tea with milk before going to bed. He is one of the healthiest guys I know. And the caffeine strangely does not affect him.

The list could extend lots longer.

According to the World Health Organization, 80 percent of the population in some Asian and African countries depends on traditional medicine for primary health care.

"WHO defines traditional medicine as the sum total of knowledge, skills and practices based on the theories, beliefs and experiences indigenous to different cultures that are used to maintain health," according to the WHO website.

So as it turns out, home remedies in the developing world are common.

My friend Brianna Haenke was a Peace Corps community health volunteer in a very different part of the world, in a desolate region of Cameroon. She tells me she would often hear of villagers visiting a healer who would practice traditional medicine, or they would on their own home remedies.

“A long travel time and little money make it difficult for people to visit a hospital,” she said. “People rely on healers who know them and home remedies as a result.”

And Bazylevych said westerners shouldn’t immediately dismiss traditional views on medicine, no matter how strange they might seem.

“Western medicine is very focused on the separation of mind and body,” she said. “But we should definitely not dismiss observations people have been making for centuries.”

On that note, I would rather drink raspberry tea than take a spoonful of cough syrup any day.