Last of the Medicine Men

Travelling from Haiti to Indonesia, Mexico to Siberia, Benedict Allen sets out to discover why these healers, protectors and prophets of the environment have such an indescribable power over people.

Often described as the "real-life Indiana Jones," Benedict has been known to paddle hundred's of miles up the Amazon in search of a mythical lake. He was also the first person to walk the entire length of the Namib Desert with only his camels for company.

This documentary series sees Benedict visiting various societies deep in the rainforest, in the mountains, on the steppes and in the modern cities in a quest to meet those people who personify the link between the everyday world and the spirits of the next.

Talking of this programme Benedict says: "It might seem strange to start my search for the medicine men in New York City, but there's around a quarter of a million Haitians living there, some of whom, year after year, go on pilgrimages back to Haiti to take part in voodoo ceremonies. The first programme shows my quest to get an insiders view into what voodoo is all about."

Voodoo is a vastly misunderstood system of religious beliefs and was originally transported across the Atlantic with the African slaves who worked the Europeans' plantations. These beliefs then took root around the Americas and different forms of this belief can now be found all over America. This documentary is hopefully going to allow Benedict to understand the religion, which has been exploited by Hollywood as a symbol of evil and horror.

Throughout his journey Benedict is taken to Haiti by a voodoo drummer called Frisner Augustin, for the summer festival of the spirit of Ezili at Saut d'Eau. Here Benedict visits the cemetery and starts to understand the relationship between the living and the dead, and of course respecting the dead is central to the religion.

The ceremony is found to be seething with pilgrims from all over the World. He experiences possession, a phenomenon dismissed by western doctors as a psychological trauma. The opportunity to speak to spirits and ask their advice on how to live life is what drives believers to engage in such practises that the modern world would hold in contempt. Benedict meets Edele Joseph, a mambo (medicine woman or 'witch doctor') and in a spine-tingling ceremony he sees her become possessed by the spirit of the dead, Gede. This is Benedict's first encounter with a spirit and urges him on to discover more about the religion, along with its darker side.

Another festival Benedict visits with Edele is the festival of Ogun (the warrior at the mud-baths of Plaine-du-Nord). Benedict, in a bid to get involved, finds the mud baths strangely appealing and is surprised to feeling transported beyond the noisy and frenetic present to a state of peace and calm.

Later Benedict is invited to visit the creepy compound of the notorious Altesse Paul, a well-known houngan or "witch doctor" with a notorious reputation in Haiti of sacrifices and secret chambers where he creates zombies. Altesse describes himself as a 'malfecteur', or evildoer, and claims to have made a pact with Satan. Altesse offers to conduct a ritual in which he will bring fire from the ground and voices from hell. Edele reassured Benedict that he would be safe and Benedict watches as Altesse leads a dramatic ritual, but remains unconvinced that he's witnessed any spiritual communication. Benedict says of his experience: "I had all the usual preconceptions about voodoo - zombies, witch doctors, needles being stuck in dolls - I hadn't appreciated its complexity. I found a rich and adaptable religious system that has truly ancient roots, yet in some ways is very modern. It was a privilege and a surprise to find voodoo so open and accepting - so free."

Benedict also becomes a trainee healer on the rainforested island of Siberut, Indonesia. He says of this island: "I was on Siberut about 12 years ago, I was really struck by how the local tribes coped on a daily basis with the threat of disease and death with the help of medicine men, or Kerei's. I wanted to get closer to these secretive and mysterious characters."

Kerei's practise a form of shamanism that has stayed unchanged for thousands of years, yet the Indonesian authorities have continued to try and stamp it out in an attempt to establish Islam. Benedict meets an old kerei called Amam Maom who shows him the way of life of the island's Mentawai people who beliefs include that every creature and object has a soul of equal importance to our own. Kerei's heal using plants and sacred songs. Through these songs (which take years to learn) Kerei's communicate with the spirits of the souls of ancestors who live unseen in the forest.

These people aim to keep the human world in harmony with the rest of creation - an ecological and spiritual balance you could say. The Mentawai's belief is that human souls are constantly in danger of being tempted to join the spiritual world, and sickness is not just physical but also spiritual and the Kerei's job is to heal the illness through a combination of medicine, offerings to the spirits and songs to call back the souls. Benedict has had several weeks of tuition and has been asked to help out in a healing ritual. However he soon realises a Kerei's work is never done when he realises they are at the community's service 24 hours a day. On nearing his kerei education all he has to learn are some of the sacred healing songs. However there is one small draw back - should he get the song wrong, the patient dies.

Genre: Health

Running Time: 30 minutes (approx)

4/5 Stars


Benedict Allen...Narrator