By Olivia Oldham
Rasheeqa Ahmad is a medical herbalist in Walthamstow, East London. She runs a practice called Hedge Herbs, and has collaborated with Phytology, a cultural institute in Bethnal Green, to lead their Mobile Apothecary programme since long before the lock-down. Founded in early 2019, the Mobile Apothecary has brought people together to learn about medicinal plants. Together, they create herbal medicines which are then distributed to community members who are facing barriers to accessing food, shelter, and—crucially—healthcare.
Providing health-promoting care to vulnerable members of the community is a hugely important task. But simmering beneath the actual medicines—the cough syrups and immune tonic vinegars and balms—lies something even more fundamental: knowledge. By creating spaces where people can come together to learn how to create herbal medicines from ingredients they might find on road verges, in parks, and in their own kitchens and gardens, Rasheeqa, the Mobile Apothecary, and Phytology are helping people to reclaim knowledge and take back some power over their own health and wellbeing. In the face of future crises—whether pandemics or global climate change—the centrality of knowledge to resilience cannot be overstated. As Rasheeqa put it, “having this knowledge and using it is a kind of revolutionary act in this world.”
Originally, Rasheeqa, who is featured on ‘Who Feeds Us?’, the new six-part series from Farmerama Radio, worked with Phytology to harvest herbs from its medicinal meadow, creating medicines to be taken by Herbalists without Borders to refugee camps at Calais and Dunkirk. But last year, her focus shifted towards serving more local needs, providing medicine to members of the community in tandem with the Refugee Community Kitchen. Rasheeqa and a number of volunteers harvested the root of a plant known as elecampane—useful for fighting against respiratory infection, and for healing the lungs.
“[W]e did a harvest of the root, and then we collectively in a workshop made it into a…cough syrup,” she said. The medicine was distributed monthly at first, but much more frequently since the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic.
While the medicine itself clearly benefits those to whom it is given, particularly during a global pandemic whose effects have been far from equally distributed, Rasheeqa emphasised that it is the knowledge of how to make that medicine which is truly transformational. For some people Rasheeqa has worked with—both before and during Covid-19—learning about some simple health-promoting remedies they can make using items they might have in their kitchen has been “revelatory,” she said.
“[H]aving knowledge about what the plants are, and how you can use them in your body, how we can make an exchange with them as living beings I think really gives us a lot of power,” she said. With that knowledge, people can understand “how seasonally to protect our health, to make ourselves well by nourishing ourselves with food medicine that grows all around.”
In Rasheeqa’s eyes, medicine has been commodified: healthcare has too often become about profitability and efficiency, rather than caring and nourishing, and knowledge about how to maintain health has been hidden away, making it inaccessible to many. Under this paradigm, health has become the domain of an elite class of medical professionals and multinational pharmaceutical companies, rather than everyday people. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
“[A]ctually, herbal medicine enables us to bring the knowledge into our own hands and to take care of ourselves and each other in our communities, in a way that kind of swerves that whole thing of medicine becoming a profitable material,” she said.
This is not to say that all health problems can be cured by common herbs, nor that there is nothing to value in the medical profession, which is populated by people driven by a vocational calling to help others, backed up by wide-ranging knowledge of how to cure a whole host of ills. Instead, the point is that people can be empowered by the knowledge of how to maintain their own health.
“The beauty of this is, you know, we don’t have this thing where some people have the knowledge, and kind of deign to share it with others, but it’s something that is accessible to everybody and everyone can develop it and use it in their own way that’s personal to them,” Rasheeqa said. “[P]lant medicine originally was something that was accessible to all humans. It’s something we’ve evolved with; we’ve cohabited with plants that are much much older than us and really know how to inhabit the earth.” And while we’ve become separated from that knowledge, at least in the Minority World,* it isn’t unfamiliar, and people like Rasheeqa are working to bring it back into common use.
While people undoubtedly benefit on an individual level from learning the medical uses they can put common herbs and ‘weeds’ to, the benefits expand and compound even further on a community scale. Rasheeqa facilitates a community apothecary project in Waltham Forest which speaks to some of these questions of community.
“[W]e’re starting to develop herb gardens—medicinal herb gardens—where people come to learn to grow herbs themselves. And then, together, we’re harvesting the herbs and making them into medicines for people in the community,” she explained. These medicines are nourishing and health-promoting, but it’s the community element of the project that really shines through. Bringing people together to grow food, and to learn and share skills together is “massively” helpful for physical, emotional and mental health, Rasheeqa said.
“Being connected with the land in our bodies is something that humans have always done—being connected with earth, with soil, with growing our own food has happened as long as humans have been alive. And it’s another thing that has been taken away in lots of ways, that’s been commodified. When we look at the global agricultural systems… we are distanced from that which we’re taking in, which is supposed to be nourishing for our bodies, and it’s become almost toxic and non-food hasn’t it, a lot of the products of that system?”
But by fostering peoples’ capacity to “take care of each other” and “the earth around us”, by creating places where people can participate in growing and learning together, it is possible to revitalise that connection and to improve community resilience in the face of future crises—from pandemics to climate change.
“It feels like a lot of what’s happening in our world today is because there are weak points where we haven’t all taken care of each other,” Rasheeqa said. “And I think, for me, the… plants and the medicine, this kind of thing, is a way to do that better.”
*[another term for the ‘global North’ referring to the fact that North America & Western Europe contain a minority of the world’s population]
Who Feeds Us? is a chorus from the people who have fed us throughout the Covid crisis: people from all over the UK, of many different ages and beliefs, from different backgrounds, regions and classes; farmers, growers, community leaders, healers, chefs, beekeepers, and fishers. Who Feeds Us? is an important series about the relevance of food sovereignty to everyone in society. This means putting our food back in the hands of the people, and prioritising nature and nourishment. Tune into Who Feeds Us? by Farmerama Radio via all major podcast platforms or visit https://farmerama.co/listen/