Orientalism in the Amazon

I watched Channel 4’s Medicine Men Go Wild last night because they were doing ayahuasca in the jungles of Peru.

The show follows two attractive identical-twin doctors who specialize in tropical medicine (my God, how the TV execs must have loved that!) as they go to far-flung countries to ‘investigate’ traditional healing.

The intersection of industrial pharmaceutical thinking and natural healing is a fascinating seam and I suppose this was a naturally attractive way of exploring it: handsome, rugged explorer brothers, trek the world seeing what native medicine was up to and comparing it with the medicines of the ‘West’. One of the brothers was a sceptic, one was a sympathetic type. (Happily, the nice brother wore a jhebuti to enable us to identify him from his more safari-clad sibling.)

But the implicit tone of the whole piece was shockingly old-fashioned. A perfect example of what the late Edward Said pinpointed as ‘Orientalism’ in Western thinking: the patronising, often unconscious, reduction of non-Occidental thinking into exoticism and irrationalism. Sometimes this comes across as just plain racist as when Zander (the cynical brother) grudgingly concedes that Anna, the village healer, might have come up with a good way of making a sick child inhale steam: the undertone is clearly, “Crikey, these blackies do come up with clever ideas sometimes… Must be chance.” It’s a rather vile Victorian colonial tone which I thought we’d long outgrown.

Stripped of its charming, boyish banter, the thrust of this series is ‘Look how comic and crazy these natives are, with their nonsensical methods of healing’ – even though the end of this particular episode shows that the ‘native’ cure worked much more effectively than Western anti-biotics. Of course, there are many cases where Western medicine is infinitely more successful than traditional forms – but that isn’t really the point. The point is that this camera crew and these brothers come for 3 days into a community and picking out two random cases, mislead us into thinking they have shown a proper picture of this tribe’s healing wisdom.

I noticed this particularly because one of the brothers was drinking ayahuasca, which I’ve had deep and repeated experiences with. The way it was presented was as a silly and luke-warm ceremony with very limited hallucinogenic effects. Most gallingly, the summation of the experience was given to the cynical brother who didn’t try it even once. The dismissal of an immensely powerful part of Amazonian plant wisdom by a cynic who didn’t even drink it seems like extremely lazy journalism.

For a proper examination of tribal wisdom Bruce Parry’s Tribe is infinitely superior.

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