The Wisdom of Herbs: Benin, West Africa

By Chef Wilizé Maléombho. Photography by Deun Ivory. 

The first time I truly understood the power of medicinal herbs was during a healing voodoo ritual in Benin, West Africa. When most people hear the word voodoo, their mind immediately taps into the westernized ideal of what this ancestral spirituality represents: for them it’s witchcraft, black magic, or sorcery. The reality is that  voodoo is the way in which our ancestors harmonized their minds and their bodies with their soul. I remember that day like it was yesterday. My naked knees kissed the cold red earth as the healer called upon the spirit of my ancestors. Although, my mind couldn’t make sense of what was happening my body and my spirit felt the healing unfold. My mind moved through every painful emotion I ever endured: shame, guilt, fear, anger, anxiety and doubt, until the priest was done.

Once, the ritual ended, the tears were rolling down my eyes. The two women who had previously helped me get ready for the ritual approached. One of them helped me back on my feet, while the other handed me a porcelain jar filled with a mixture of mysterious herbs. She gestured that I cleanse myself thoroughly with it before heading to bed that night, the herbs she said “will cleanse your spirit." In the ancient practices of voodoo, or any ancestral spirituality for that matter, the herbs are sacred. They are an extension of mother earth’s wisdom, and embody the spirit of our ancestors. No ritual can be performed without the presence of herbs: herbs to cleanse, herbs to cure, herbs to enlighten, or herbs to heal.

As a nutritionist, I‘ve always been familiar with the power that medicinal herbs have on the body. In my practice, I always incorporate some type of herbal regimen for my clients. In Africa however, I learned that healing is not a one sided coin. If the human experience includes mind, body and spirit then we must learn to heal the organism as a whole. I learned that an entity that affects our body also affects our spirit. Moreover, I learned that herbs embodied  a spirit of their own. This concept that everything in the universe has a spirit is at the core of holistic ancestral medicinal practice. To pay homage to this belief a healer must follow very strict guidelines, before handling an herb.

For instance, if a specific herb requires to be harvested during a certain phase of the moon, the healer will have to follow these guidelines, before benefiting from the therapeutic power of the herb. Everything that our ancestors did was magical; they honored and revered the earth. To say that an herb houses a spirit is to acknowledge and respect it. When you respect something, you handle it with care. If more people, now a days, learned to acknowledge and respect every living organism of this world, our world would be in a better place. Living in the west, we may not be able to follow the strict guidelines, associated with the handling of herbs, but the next time you drink a cup of therapeutic tea, give thanks to the spirit who chose to  participate in your healing journey.

With love

Chef Wilizé

P.S
Here is a list of therapeutic herbs that you can always incorporate in your journey to self-love. (please be advise that the purpose of this list  is to inform, always check in with your doctor before incorporating any herbal treatment into your regiment)

  1. Lavender: calms the nervous system

  2. Chamomile: calms the nervous system

  3. Ashwagandha: balances the endocrine system (hormones)

  4. Turmeric : anti-inflammatory 

Chef Wilizé Maléombho is a certified behavior neuroscientist and nutrition therapist. In her practice, she helps millennial women of the diaspora find peace via wellness workshops and traveling retreats to Africa. Find more about her work through her website and instagram