Our faces are stretching. Taking a step forward takes up all our strength. We cling on to the rock walls to pull ourselves forward.

We are at one of the edges of the Indian Ocean at the southern tip of Africa. Baptized the “Cape of Storms” in 1488 by the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias, it was later renamed the “Cape of Good Hope” in hopes it would be a sea route to India and the East. The land around the Cape was home to the Khoikhoi, San, and Xhosa before the Dutch settled there in 1652, then slowly moved inland. In 1779, 100 years of war over land and cattle began, which the British joined in 1795. These histories enmeshed through lines, flows, winds, and water and into more recent histories. Some of these histories I learned during fieldwork in the Cape from 2006 until 2010, where I traced the journey of a wild indigenous plant towards its use in a preclinical trial. Cape Town is situated near the meeting of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, the actual meeting of the currents moving seasonally between Cape Point and Cape Agulhas. The meeting of the waters appeals to the imagination, but also speaks to the tensions within the trial. Practices coming from the West were cold and colonial, and they progressively rendered “indigenous medicine” practices illegal from as early as the 1860s. Practices coming from the East, namely Ayurvedic ones, were warm, enriching, and weaved into everyday practices with much more camaraderie.

Within this practice of weaving, weather lines might offer a way to understand people’s engagements with plants for healing in the Cape, namely in thinking through water’s fluidities. The Agulhas “leak,” peeling off from the Indian Ocean and forming eddies increasing in strength and in warm salty waters pouring into the Atlantic Ocean. Recent studies suggests this leaking may have the effect of balancing “global warming.” Could Indian Ocean worlds then be necessary to Atlantic Ocean worlds?

The Indian Ocean is the smallest, youngest, and most physically complex of the world’s three major oceans, covering approximately one-fifth of the total ocean area of the world—and such characteristics provide more trails to explore in terms of the proximities, fluidities in time, and complexities that are enhanced through the sharing of these waters.

The notion of “Indian Ocean Worlds” weaves through my personal research trajectory, which recently moved to another one of the Indian Ocean’s edges, this time a city situated near the ocean’s deepest point—the Sunda Deep of the Java Trench off the southern coast of Indonesia’s Java island. Yogyakarta (Jodja) lies between the Merapi volcano to the north and the Indian Ocean to the south, a location that suggests, perhaps, a more in-depth movement of Ayurvedic medicine into Javanese everyday healing practices, ones currently emerging as Jamu. Traces of Jamu medicine from as early as the eighth century can be found in the Hindu Temple of Prambanan, near Jodja, but Jamu bloomed during the Mataram Kingdom from the late 16th to 18th century. Jamu’s healing practices, like those regrouped under the term muti (broadly indicating all South African indigenous medicine), are set as contrasting lines to a modern biopharmaceutical wave often overshadowing their multiplicities.

Here, I want to very briefly share how lively plant efficacies in muti and in jamu might be understood as becoming-plant, an approach that might have more echoes with Ayurvedic medicine than with biomedicine. So what is becoming-plant? First, it implies we think of ourselves, as Tim Ingold suggests, and of plants, as I suggest, “ … not as beings but as becomings—that is, not as discrete and pre-formed entities but as trajectories of movement and growth.” Second, this implies there is such a thing as plant-lives and that our human-lives can enter into composition with them in relations of movement and rest, or of molecular proximity. Third, it is upon entering this “zone of co-presence” or of proximity that a new becoming can occur, that is a becoming that passes in between the human and the plant in this case: “Becoming-plant is the emission of particles from a heterogeneous alliance we make which expresses in action the unique qualities of plants or plant-lives.” The cases of muti and jamu help illustrate this further.


Umuthi in Zulu means “tree” or “bark” and also “medicine”; the word is rendered as muthi or muti to refer loosely to all forms of medicine that are not obviously biomedical—most South Africans know that the word itself has deeper connotations. I use the term muti here to refer to ways of engaging with plant-life in healing. Muti includes barks, shrubs, plants, or herbs, as well as animal fats, skins, bones, and minerals and/or chemicals, even seawater; in izangoma (Xhosa healer-diviners) practices all of these materialities are open-ended entities with multiple potentialities. The same medicine, for instance, can both produce and cure the same symptoms. Muti may be activated by spirits, may be applied from spatial distance, and does not necessarily have to enter the body. A specific mixture of muti is prepared specifically for the healer in relation to her ancestors. Muti is thus indissociable from the acts, performances, drumming, divinations, spells, songs, dances, ancestors, skills, abilities, and knowing making these materialities potentially beneficial as mediums to weave good relations-in-the-world in healing, as opposed to objects or commodities containing health.

My research traced how an indigenous plant called umhlonyane in Xhosa (Artemisia afra or A.afra in Latin) emerged in the process of a preclinical trial against tuberculosis in Cape Town in South Africa. Since the trial also portrayed itself as a way to “recognize indigenous medicine” I became interested in how this might occur.

Scientific curiosity around A.afra with an interest in assigning a chemical structure to its oils appears in first in a 1922 publication, and the interests in its oils, namely thujone, continued until the late 1980s. From the years 2000 onwards, however, this interest in the plant’s oils shifted towards to its flavonoids. Between the two sets of interests in the same botanical entity, we can see a distinction between A.afra being understood as a “psychotropic drug” and as a “medicine” against tuberculosis, malaria, or even cancer. In other words, the same botanical entity offers two possibilities to biopharmaceutical thought.

But Xhosa izangoma have yet other ways of knowing umhlonyane in healing. They may place it under bed sheets to purify and clarify dreams although not any umhlonyane will be placed there—the isangoma dreams of the place where it grows and collect it in this location. Prior to these dreams, the location is unknown. This in part explains how izangoma found the A.afra that was grown in 10 rows in a cultivated field for the purposes of the preclinical trial to have lost its “life,” and consequently its efficacy. This also shows how the healers strive to “become” with the plant, to learn something from it that may help in healing.

Perhaps finding synergy in Eastern practices, the South African scientists involved in the preclinical trial studied a clinical model developed by Indian researchers to test Ayurvedic medicine in the hopes of softening the prospected randomized clinical trial (RCT) (science’s current gold standard to test the efficacy of medicine) they were preparing towards. As a result, the African co-director of the preclinical trial proposed his new model of clinical trial, the translational validation model or reversed pharmacology model inspired from Patwardhan and Mashelkar. This model suggests clinical studies should be done before laboratory studies and are, in fact, preferred since they brings slightly more of the world’s intricacies into consideration.

In the end, the preclinical trial of A.afra aimed to test a whole plant and its molecular synergies rather than isolating a molecule in the laboratory and in this way challenged both the RCT model and remained slightly closer to the ways the plant works in practice. What it does not do, however, is consider that the clinic and the laboratory need not have the last word as they are merely a few voices amongst others. To recognize indigenous medicine as it is done by Xhosa izangoma, it seems we need to take a step further to understand how efficacies are achieved through proximities and affect—namely through becoming-plant. This would enable us to see even greater commensurabilities within Indian Ocean Worlds.


Jamu medicine in Yogyakarta on the Island of Java, where I conducted a visual/sound anthropological film (above) during the month of Ramadan in 2013, also seems best understood as becoming-plant. Jamu is done in all sorts of moving directions and tempos, varies in its dimensions, metamorphosing itself to the rhythms of the everyday in its preparations and also in appearances as it moves through markets, spas, agro-tourism, hospitals, laboratories, cafés, museums, gardens, and the Palace area. The Kraton (Palace), a walled city within Yogya, is home to around 25,000 people of which around 1,000 are employed by the Sultan, currently Hamengkubuwono X, who is also, since 1998, governor of the modern Yogyakarta Special Region. Jamu is thus made to appear under very diverse variations mixing Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic styles done in all sorts of indigenized Javanese ways. Javanese aesthetics are embodied by jamu gendong (barefoot carrying jamu elixirs on one’s back), some more recently doing so by bicycle in Islamic or Javanese dress and showing NGO input (bicycle and blender donations), others installing semi-permanent stalls throughout the city. The five to nine fresh jamu elixirs prepared on a daily basis and sold door-to-door are made with over 100 different kinds of vegetal life, mainly rhizomes, fruits, herbs, and spices such as kencur (form of ginger), cabe (chilli pepper), lempuyang (other form of ginger), kunir (curcuma), asem (tamarind), kapulaga (cardamone), beras (raw rice powder), gula Jawa (coconut powder from palme areca), and asin (salt).

It is the ways of preparing the tonic and its immediate consumption in liquid form that, combined, distinguish jamu from obat (herbal medicine); a notion of immediacy best understood within a Javanese philosophy that, as Steve Ferzacca says, is “of a body of winds and flows within a phenomenal world where practice and knowledge reside as agentative forces – always present, always waiting. Jamu as a spontaneously made and consumed liquid is simply one other flow that passes through the human body, that also nurtures the complex of flows and winds which constitute the nature of human life.”

Human-plant entanglements are prized and the long hours spent preparing the elixirs contrasts with how the customers drink it quickly, in a single shot. Usually work done by women, the leaves, herbs, and rhizomes will, for instance, be washed under running water in a outdoor stone sink, shaken under the water through a back and forth movement, and rest involving the whole body. Following a similar tempo, the rice, rhizomes and spices that are placed in a stone bowl will be crushed with a pestle, sometimes by two people in tandem until the wanted consistence is obtained. The herbs are, for their part, placed on a stone tablet and their juice will be extracted with a cylinder stone, again following a slow tempo accompanied by a back and forth movement. Finally, the turmeric and tamarind will be pressed with hands, the juice trickling down through the fingers, enabling them to extract textured part of the rhizomes’ and fruits’ flesh to make the beverage. The yellow-orange tincture left on the hands following this step, which is also accomplished through movement and rest, becomes crucial evidence that shows customers the beverage is fresh, authentic, and chemical free. The particular color left on the hands is known to be different if coming from meshing with fresh rhizomes or if it comes from chemical dye, expressing a higher value of the woman’s co-presence with the plants.

Becoming-plant occurs as the woman composes her body with the rhizomes in such a way to make them digestible, joining in particles that will be vegetal in function of the relation of movement and rest, or of the molecular proximites in which they enter. Hence the very preparation of the jamu drink can in itself be understood as healing for these women who, in their becoming, make these plants potentially more accessible to those who consume them on a daily basis, often many times a day. In other words, as Gilles Deleuze Felix Guattari writes, “all becomings are molecular; the animal, the flower or the stone that we become are molecular collectivities, hecceities, not of molar forms, objects or subjects that we know outside ourselves and that we recognize by way of experience or science, or out of habit.” The process of preparing the plants in a certain tempo or following certain relations of movement and rest, speed, and slowness, are the closest to what we are in the process of becoming and through which we become. These women enter a zone of co-presence with the plants that will ensure the lively efficacies of the beverage.

The Javanese woman who has prepared Jamu everyday for the past 60 years and through which each beverage entangles turmeric within a hundred other forms of vegetal life can form a becoming-plant. Turmeric will be planted, reproduced, bought, mobilized, and pressed in the everyday to authenticate her healing beverages. Its texture will be felt and its color will impregnate her hands, attesting to the authenticity of her art. Hence the woman benefits from a co-presence by arranging her movements with turmeric and turmeric’s survival, its de-multiplication in human worlds also ensuring its proliferation. As the bloc of becoming produces a line of flight that crosses over territories and mediums, the woman and turmeric can be said to form a “rhizome”, an increase in value, a becoming-plant for the woman and a becoming-human for the plant.

It is, however, not useful to isolate turmeric from the other rhizomes, plants, fruits, spices, nor from the movements to press it, liquefy it, bottle it, and carry it to the client at the right moment for the right problem. It is more relevant to understand how what passes between the woman and the plant is itself a threshold crossed between the two forms of life and so potentially already beneficial in that sense. Further, the healing beverage needs to “fit” (tjotjog), to correspond, thus privileging, to emerge, an open congested, noisy festive medium with potential lines of flight. Jamu is hoped to unblock a problem in a body of winds and flows. Hence it is plant liveliness mixing with human liveliness that makes these beverages’ healing potentials very real.


In aiming to illustrate becoming-plant in muti and jamu I’ve briefly touched upon the idea of “water” or the ocean as a way to grasp how these practices might move fluidly and with infinite possibilities of both undercurrents and breaking the surface: certain practices are made to rise to the surface in a certain way under particular circumstances to again disappear beneath the surfaces as the movements of life follow their tempo and rhythms. Oceans meet with no fixed point or limitation of worlds; borders which dissipate further when we are fully immersed in the world of the everyday. It is only from afar that we can see such lines separating the oceans and only from the inside that we can understand how oceans meet and mix, carrying things and people in and across them. If we prioritize the lived and the felt in its entanglements with materials, there is no longer a single world in the backdrop in need of “verification” by a single external model, like the biopharmaceutical, yet rather world that are continuously emerging, bringing into being traditions that may appear to belong to another space and time. But they are also making themselves a home through people’s practices in the present, and those enmeshments are already showing meaningful worlds of becoming. As rhizomes, becoming-plant continuously emerges in new ways.

Further Reading

Image Credit: berghahnbooks.com

About The Author

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Associate Professor of Anthropology

I am Associate Professor of Anthropology in the School of Sociological and Anthropological Studies at the University of Ottawa. I’ve published in numerous journals and have authored the books Pouvoir guérir and Healing Roots. I recently produced an anthropological film entitled Jamu Stories.