Maria d’Ajuda

Maria d’Ajuda, indigenous midwife and shaman

“The plants that can be used as medicine shine in my sight. I smell them, I feel them. I can’t read, but I can read the earth, the plants and the medicines.”

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Her indigenous name is Jaçanã, the same as a beautifully colored bird, but she was registered as Maria d’Ajuda since she is from Arraial d’Ajuda in Bahia state. Destiny favored her in giving her this name: she has helped many children come into this world [NT: “ajuda” is portuguese for “help”]. In addition to being a midwife, d’Ajuda is an herbalist and has become the first pajé (spiritual leader) of the Pataxó indians.

The first time I met her I was 17, on my first trip to northeastern Brazil in search of midwives. When I arrived at her house, I introduced myself and was welcomed as if I were already an old friend. She invited me to sit on her couch and went to pick cashew fruit off her tree for me. What sweet cashew fruit! As sweet as that woman with the pure gaze and sincere smile that welcomed me. Since we were on the subject of cashews, she took me for a walk through her yard to see a little of her garden and orchard. Over twenty years ago, Dona d’Ajuda began planting different kinds of trees and medicinal herbs, which turned into an agroforestry system in her yard. She proudly told us that there were over 20 types of fruit-bearing trees there, and that even students from the city of Salvador had come to see her living pharmacy.

A diverse orchard, beds of medicinal herbs and an abundant vegetable garden: she obtains almost everything she eats from her yard, and shares it with others in the village. During our walk, she would sometimes stop to talk with the plants and to explain each of their properties and uses, especially touching on what she knew about medicinal plants for women. Her contact with the plants began when she was “just this big” she says, pointing to a 6-year-old grandson. Her interest in births came a little later, when she was 12.

As a child, no one in that region had ever seen or heard of doctors. She watched her mother take care of her stepfather for a long time with what she calls “forest medicine”, made from teas and syrups from roots, after he suffered an accident on a mule. The first remedy she ever made, at age 6, was for her own mother when she fell sick. Dona d’Ajuda went into the yard, desperate, without knowing what to do, and asked God to show her the plants she should use to help her mother. That was how she learned: by observing her mother, then through her own necessity. When that woman was still a girl, she lost her mother and then her stepfather left. She grew up and raised herself, hiding in the forest whenever she saw people. She was afraid of people and preferred being alone.

Dona d’Ajuda not only plants but also prepares all manner of medicines, including syrups, tinctures, infusions, vegetable oils and essential oils. She teaches that massages have to be done with a lot of pressure on the pelvis to alleviate the pains of childbirth. Her favorite oils are almond oil and coconut oil, the latter prepared herself from the coconuts from her yard or the nearest beach. She doesn’t waste anything, since she also uses the coconut water like a homemade saline solution to hydrate the women in labor. The douches she recommends for women before labor are normally made from flowers with unfurled petals so that “the uterus also opens”.

Just after the baby is born, this midwife buries the placenta, but she also knows how to make a tincture from it, medicine commonly made by Mexican midwives. If for some reason the placenta is having difficulty detaching, she knows Saint Margaret’s prayer, which other northeastern Brazilian midwives also told me they use. Since there are not many hospitals in the region, she tries to use everything she can to help.

Human beings are part of nature, and Dona d’Ajuda does not set us apart from it. “The moon moves everything, my daughter,” she told me once, “The ocean’s tides, the animals, the plants, and even hair.” However, there is an appropriate moon for planting and harvesting, and for cutting hair, since if we want our hair to grow faster, we should cut it during a waxing moon. And, of course, “The moon also moves women’s cycles (menstruation) and when she’ll have her baby.”

To Dona d’Ajuda, midwives are born. There is something mysterious in this, mixing gift with destiny. She says that from her early childhood she wanted to go into the rooms to watch women having their babies, but at that time it was forbidden to children. She became a midwife when she attended her first birth, at age 20. To her, one of the most important parts of this job is love, as much for the profession as for the women in labor, whom she treats as if they were her own daughters.

Currently, she attends few births. With the arrival of hospitals in the region, the culture of hospital births is increasingly present in the village. Since she is getting older and no younger woman is following her path, she prefers to dedicate herself more to caring for her plants. Every time I went to visit her, either on welcoming me or saying goodbye she’d give me a present from her yard. It became a tradition. Whether it was a bottle of oil, a flower tincture or an herbal pomade, Dona d’Ajuda always found a way for me to carry her home in my souvenir.