Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Mr Taitel Saburo, Chief Ibedul er a Barrak of Ngebei, Ngarchelong State, preparing traditional herbal medicine with his wife © Dwight G. Alexander

Ongael (Delalakar), the Mother of Medicine

Before modern hospitals appeared in Palau, German and Spanish missionaries brought medicines in the form of powder, tablets, and capsules. The local people were amazed to see such medicine and believed the medicine was from western gods. The reason for this belief is routed in history. Before western contact, people believed that illnesses were a result of curses, displeased gods, or the breaking of taboos. Traditional medicines were believed to restore health and vitality by breaking the curse, appeasing the gods, or restoring the spirit from a broken taboo.

In Palau, there are many traditional herbal medicines used to cure sores, boils, skin rashes, headaches, congestion, stomach aches, and other such illnesses. However, with modern knowledge, the use of traditional medicine is seen as idolatry since medicinal practices are connected with spirits (good or evil) and deities. Therefore, the use became somewhat forbidden when western contact was made and modern medicine and new religious beliefs were introduced.

Modern doctors are starting to study the medicinal value of traditional herbal plants, and they trying to educate and inform the people that the plants are actually medicine on their own without the help from the spiritual realm. They are also trying to encourage people to shift from unhealthy eating habits to healthy diets to avoid diseases associated with unhealthy behaviors. One of the goals is to encourage the local people to use traditional preventive medicines so they can maintain their strength to combat illnesses.

One such herbal medicine is ongael (Phaleria nisidai ), commonly known as delalakar, which is translated to mean ‘mother of medicine’. Mr. Taitel Saburo, who holds the chief title Ibedul er a Barrak of Ngebei, Ngarchelong State, relays his experience and knowledge of the medicine. While he admits that he is not an expert in traditional medicine, he recalls that around 1944, when he went to school during the Japanese occupation (1914–1945), the people with whom he stayed in Ngaraard State were using ongael. They would boil the leaves (mature leaves) in hot water and drink the tea-like decoction for strength and for treating colds, flus, and high fevers. They also used the leaves to treat wounds and sores by crushing the leaves and using the sap.

When he returned home to Ngarchelong State, he asked his family about the medicine and was told that it was used long before the Japanese came on the island and even before the German Administration of Palau (1899–1914) and the Spanish Administration (1885–1898). He found out that it was also called delalakar because it can be mixed with other medicine to form a different medicinal content used to treat other ailments. For example, when mixed with kirrai (Scaevola taccada) and klsechedui (Vitex trifolia) and boiled to make the tea-like drink, it can be used to treat persistent cough and congestion. It has been said that it can also help with hepatitis and helps to strengthen the kidneys and liver.

A very recent book entitled, Palau Primary Health Care Manual, a book on health care combining conventional treatment and traditional uses of plants for health and healing, talks extensively about delalakar as well as other herbal medicines in Palau. The book is forwarded by Dr Stevenson Kuartei, MD, Minister of Health in the Palau national government, and prefaced by Dr Victor M. Yano, MD, former Minister of Health and a private physician in Palau. The information in the book was compiled by doctors and plant experts with data provided by local experts who have learned or experienced the use of the herbal plants. The experts discussed ongael as being common medicine used by the local people before the introduction of western medicine. Mixing the leaves of ongael, kirrai, and klsechedui and boiling them to make the tea-like brew that can be consumed hot or cold helps stimulate appetite; it is diuretic and a good source of energy. When people drink the brew while working, it helps them sweat and cleanses their system. Afterwards, they feel energized rather than fatigued.

Delalakar is still widely used today, even by the younger generation. It is more valuable now with attention shifting to healthy lifestyles and healthy diets.