kaieteur news Nov 12, 2017
Sometimes, I see mothers in tears who can’t even afford passage to go back home and me, Gloria, would give them treatment for free. That is what God teach us as a people.”
By Gordon French
The name ‘Mama Fiffee’ represents an iconic Guyanese institution, best known for its traditional herbal treatments, birthed at Buxton on the East Coast of Demerara, and which has mushroomed into a global phenomenon.
Gloria Fiffee is the fourth child, born on November 3rd, 1940, to James and Agatha Fiffee, who is best known as ‘Mama Fiffee’, a revered woman who for many years attended to illnesses using herbal medicines made from plants found deep in the backlands of Buxton.
From an early age, Gloria knew that her destiny was to assume the leadership from Mama Fiffee who passed away in 2004, one month after celebrating her 100th birthday.
“It was a lot of pressure on me at first. I knew I would have to be the one to continue this family tradition. I did not want to do it, but when God puts you in position, you have to answer the call, no matter what you think or what you believe you want to do,” Gloria said.
Perhaps the fear she felt came about because the herbal treatment knowledge has been in the family for well over 200 years. Gloria was told that during the slavery days, her great grandmother arrived at Plantation Lusignan and equipped herself with the knowledge of the medicinal value of the trees and plants in the surrounding villages.
It has remained a family secret for generations ever since.
Gloria attended St. Anthony’s Primary, now the Friendship Primary School. She never pursued a secondary education, but started immediately to assist her mother. She recalled getting up at 5 a.m. to go into the backlands, and helping her father and other relatives with chores.
“In those days life was simple. We did not have all this technology. We used to play in the streets. It was sweet times. Moonlight nights was the best, but today they ain’t know about that nice life when we were young,” Gloria recalls.
She also recalled the village functions and celebrations such as a KweKwe, a traditional African-Guyanese pre-wedding ceremony.
Although she would lead a normal life as a child, at home, she was constantly being groomed to one day take over the family empire. She said her older sister did not take a liking to the idea of becoming a ‘bush doctor’ and this pushed her even more to learn about the trade.
“I use to help Mama a lot around the house. I used to watch what she did and listen. Anything she wanted help with, we used to help her. So from early we started to learn what bush to use and how to use it, became Mama said my great grandmother said that this gift is from God, and it got to pass from generation to generation,” Gloria reflected.
Gloria met her husband, Ulric Vasconcellos, 57 years ago. His sister was dating Gloria’s brother and one day during a visit, he mustered enough courage to reveal his love for her. Gloria recalled with a smile, that it was on October 8, 1960, that the two really started speaking during a visit at their Buxton home.
She described herself as a ‘fierce woman’ and no man at the time dared to approach her.
“They were all afraid, because I don’t take nonsense, but he was good. He had told me that he was pursuing me from school days, but I can’t remember him from school. It wasn’t until he used to come with his sister that we start talking,” Gloria stated.
She is extremely grateful for Ulric’s support during their 52 years of marriage. The union has produced 7 children: Claudette, Lovern, Anthony, Simone, Jilian, Samantha and John. There are 24 grand children and 10 great grandchildren added over the years.
She recalls that over the years, there were many children that benefited from the family’s benevolence, as Mama Fiffee had an open door policy, and this led to the creation of an annual birthday celebration for children in the community.
“Every year when was Mama birthday, the yard use to full of kids,” Gloria recalled.
Gloria has adopted the programme and commemorated her 77th birthday this year with a party on November 5, where over 2000 children attended.
“This is not one of those parties where there is worldly music. We lift up God in this celebration. The children come and sing so beautifully. You should hear the heavenly music. It was wonderful. God has blessed me to be over the years, and if he can take five loaves and two fishes to feed the multitude then who am I; giving back is me just saying thanks,” Gloria said.
While Gloria had been working alongside Mama Fiffee for years, it wasn’t until the early 1970s that she single-handedly assisted her first patient. In those days they operated from another house east of their current location at 91 Middle Street, Buxton.
She vividly recalled that a family travelled by train from Georgetown to Buxton with a young woman who had been bed-ridden for several days at the public hospital due to a uterus-related illness.
“It was very late in the night and the girl was in so much pain. Mama was not well. I was nervous, but I knew what I had to do. I took care of her; fixed her uterus and she immediately fell asleep,” Gloria recalls.
She remembered that the young woman and her family were given a place to rest overnight. During the evening, the woman’s mother asked why her daughter was snoring so heavily and Gloria recalled responding, “that is the sound of woman who is finally getting some rest”.
The next morning, Gloria provided the family with breakfast at no extra cost and they left the village. She said the woman retuned some days later to give thanks.
From that experience, she became more confident while ever learning from her mother.
“Me know all what fuh do, but me nah had the confidence in meh self, but God give me the confidence that night. Look where I am today,” Gloria said.
These days, Gloria no longer makes the trip to the backlands, but would hand out instructions to the boys of the village who would travel miles into the backlands to collect specific ‘bush’ for particular illnesses.
She claims to have successfully found remedies for various illnesses such as colds, fever, neck masses in children, general cleanses, and the ability to ‘untie uterus’ also known as tubal reversal among others. She also claimed to have mastered the dying skill to rub nara, a condition which arises from lifting too heavy an object or performing too strenuous physical activity which results in belly pain and diarrhea.
She has become increasingly popular for the tubal reversal, a practice she said allows women the ability to make children.
“Doctors today are anxious to tell young women to remove the womb for various reasons. Everything is a tablet and an operation for nuff money. A lot of young women are coming now because the word has spread that we can do this to help them to make children. Fibroids is another thing that we can treat, which is causing so many women discomfort. I really feel good when women come back with their children to say, ‘thank you Gloria’. I tell them give God the thanks,” Gloria stated, every mindful of not giving away too many of the family secrets.
Thousands have benefited from the family’s business and by Gloria continuing, means that the next generation can continue the practice. She said persons have travelled from all parts of Guyana and from overseas to access treatment.
“It comes with great responsibility,” she concluded.
OVERSEAS INTEREST & CANCER BATTLE
Gloria is very mindful that many persons are seeking to get their hands on the family’s knowledge. She recalled a team of doctors had visited their home and requested to be taken to the Buxton backlands to be shown the medicinal plants she uses.
“I said no way. How could I betray my family for a couple of dollars. I would not die at peace,” Gloria said.
She also recalled a magazine showing interest in her work and had set up to travel from Mississippi to interview her about all the various plants she uses. She cancelled the engagement after discovering that they wanted her to share the sources of her treatment.
In March of 1995, her family took her to New York. During that time, many persons who had heard about her started lining up to meet her. However, the frigid weather at the time and a yearning to live out the rest of her life at home, led to her return to Guyana after just three months.
“Many people wanted me to stay, including my family. People were coming from everywhere to see me. They started calling. It was too much. I made a big fuss at the time and I was back in Guyana in no time. When I meet Timehri I wash out all the American soil and said to myself, ‘Guyana is where I born and it is here I have to dead’. Anyone who want treatment will have to come Buxton,” Gloria stated.
Some eleven years ago, Gloria was medically diagnosed with Cancer. At the insistence of her children, she attended two chemo treatment appointments, only to find out on both occasions that the machine was not functioning.
Gloria reverted to what she knew best – herbal treatment. She recalled using a combination of ‘three bush’, one of which she could not recall. One year later, she revisited the doctor, and shockingly, they found no cancer.
She said expanding the business to offer her products on a larger scale is something she has resisted over the years, because she sees it as a labour of love. Gloria is very knowledgeable that her fees have remained somewhat constant over the years.
“I am not going to charge a set of money to kill people. We must be contented with what God has given us. I am making enough to keep my family going and provide for children in the community. What more can I ask for? I would be very greedy. Sometimes, I see mothers in tears who can’t even afford passage to go back home and me, Gloria, would give them treatment for free. That is what God teach us as a people,” Gloria said.
NO OBEAH, NO ABORTION
Over the years, the family has battled the stigma of being an ‘obeah house’ and a place that performs abortions.
Gloria, a devoted Catholic, said her mom died at peace with God and warned her before she died not to get involved in any ‘obeah works’ nor carry out abortions, regardless of how lucrative offers may come along.
“She was very serious about that, because that is not something she got from her mother. People does come all the time and whisper in my ears how they come to do some work and they want throw away baby. Granny did not teach me spiritual work. Many people have come to me to say jumbie on them, but why lie to them? I don’t study them, because a child is a blessing on this earth. No way I could know God and do these things,”Gloria protested during the interview.
She knows that herbal remedies have doubters, but does not entertain the discussion. Gloria encourages persons to stay away from traditional treatment if there is any doubt.
“Tablet or my bush medicines, I don’t want anyone to feel like I want to sell them something. It is up to them,” Gloria stated.
Sitting in her chair as nightfall came, Gloria said she is very happy that her children and grandchildren have a vested interest in the traditional medicine business. She wishes the men in the family would also pursue it as, traditionally, the women of the family have carried the torch.
At the crack of dawn, she takes her seat downstairs and passes out instructions, preparing the next generation of the ‘Fiffee clan’ to step up, knowing that she has slowed down with age.
“My mama died a peaceful woman. If she been a tek life, she couldn’t have died peaceful. And she warned me to teach dem children that no matter who, no matter how much money, do not do it! Me decide that the work what I put out will be one that I will be proud of. I am also at peace with myself,” Gloria concluded.