The Medicine Man of Langkawi

19 January 2017

Dr. Abdul Ghani Hussain is a medical doctor by training and a researcher in traditional Malay and Islamic medicine. For over 30 years, he has earnestly collected and documented the ways in which local herbs and plants are used to treat ailments and sicknesses for generations. Speaking to us in his humble abode in Langkawi, Dr. Ghani tells us more about his endeavour and what he hopes to achieve.

It’s late afternoon and just in time for tea. Dr. Abdul Ghani Hussain sees off his guests who visited him and his wife, Dayang, as they happily take his autographed books with them, thanking him as they walk away.

Dr. Ghani now rests on his wooden veranda. But to get here, he had to tread past his dense and verdant treasury of herbs, shrubs and medicinal plants. Ever since he moved from Kuala Lumpur to Langkawi in 1984, Dr. Ghani’s research on traditional medicine had propelled him to grow his collection. Today, his garden – or germplasm bank – is packed with more than 500 different species of herbs and medicinal plants. They are left to grow wild, without a single use of pesticides or synthetic fertilisers.

“When I got married to Dayang,” he begins, “she was allergic to a lot of drugs. I had no choice but to look for alternative treatment. We started asking the village people what I can give her if she gets sick. When I realised that traditional medicine did improve her and it was equally as good as modern medicine, I thought, ‘let’s work into it’.”

Dr. Ghani then began his endeavour in traditional medicine by collecting written manuscripts from local village folk, universities and global repositories. One of his most prized discoveries was a 1593 copy of Ibn Sina’s manuscript, Qanun fil Tibb (The Canon of Medicine), which was said to have set the standards for medicine in Medieval Europe as well as the Islamic world.

An excerpt from a local handwritten medical manuscript, making up one of the many materials sought by Dr. Ghani in his research efforts.

For the most part however, Dr. Ghani spends generous amounts of time with Langkawi’s village folk and Malaysia’s orang asli community with the simple intention to talk to them. Because most of the local medicinal knowledge is passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth alone, Dr. Ghani strives to understand and dissect this knowledge to put it in writing. Among the compendium of books he’s produced from this include Nature’s Medicine: A Collection of Medicinal Plants from Malaysia’s Rainforest.

“It’s a humbling experience for me to venture into traditional medicine, given that I did come from a modern medicine background. But I did learn a lot, like how when it comes to traditional medicine, it is taken with a more holistic approach rather than a one-medicine-fits-all kind of mindset,” Dr. Ghani says.

 In his books, Dr. Ghani writes detailed accounts of the taste, values and methods of usage of each local plant, such as the hempedu bumi, gandarusa and urang-aring. Starting from the root all the way to the bud or the flower, Dr. Ghani records the different ways of extracting various medicinal properties of each plant, providing a step-by-step guide that is easily accessible to readers.

Dr. Ghani explains that there are also different ways of extracting and processing a single plant, which will give rise to different medicinal values for various ailments. For example, the type of solvents that are being used for each plant— such as water, alcohol or vinegar— would greatly affect the medicinal properties of the plant. In addition to that, harvesting the plant at different times of the day would also yield different outcomes.

“It’s not about asking, ‘Okay, what tree is this, and what is it used for?’” he says. “It goes deeper than that, and it requires only one simple phrase – ‘I want to learn’.”

According to Dr. Ghani, that phrase alone helped open up a relationship of honesty and trust between himself, the village folk and orang asli. Instead of giving a single answer to a single question, they will begin to unravel their processes from end to end, and that was exactly what Dr. Ghani wanted to document and preserve in earnest detail in his latest book, Kitab Tib: A Modern Medical Insight Into and Interpretation of a Malay Medical Transcript.

“When they [the village folk and orang asli] don’t have manuscripts, everything is by word of mouth,” says Dr. Ghani. “So, you have got to sit with them, learn, write it for them, and give it back to them. This is what I’m going to do.”

By Lillian Wee
Images by SC Shekar


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