Body Functioning and the Bodily Elements
According to the herbal doctors, the body's functioning is to be understood according to what I have called balance theory. Their main attention to discussing body functioning is focused on the four elements (also referred to by English-speaking informants as "complexions" and "characters"): "cold" (baridi ), "hot" (hari ), "dry" (yabisi ), and "wet" (rughtba ). In Swahili belief, the same four elements are present in everyone, but there are important differences among people in their relative amounts and in the balance among them.
Each of the elements is centered in a particular part of the body and is associated with a bodily fluid. Hari (hot) is centered in the liver and is associated with blood. People with a predominance of hari tend to be hopeful and courageous in disposition. Hari is more powerful in men than in women and more powerful during youth than in old age. Women rarely get diseases caused by an excess of hot because their menstrual flow protects them from this excess by lessening the blood supply when they are young. When they are old enough for their menstrual flow to stop, they are protected by their advanced age, with its diminution of hot. Men, however, are quite susceptible to hot diseases until aging brings about a lessening in their natural tendency to hotness and makes them more susceptible to diseases of excessive cold as women are all their lives.
Baridi (cold) is in the lungs and is associated with phlegm. People with a predominance of phlegm are inclined to be sluggish, dull, and impassive. Cold is more powerful in women than in men and in old age more than in youth.
Unlike the case for cold and hot, there is no association between gender and the rughtba (wet) and yabisi (dry) elements, but wet is associated with youth and dry with old age. Wet is associated with yellow bile and is located in the bile sac. A person with a preponderance of wet is likely to be proud, quick tempered, and generally given to anger.
Dry is in the spleen and is associated with what the Swahili call maji ,
which is the word also used to refer to water. However, informants specifically deny that this "water" is the lymph that fills blisters, and it is a near certainty that it is the "black bile" Galen associated with the spleen as opposed to the yellow bile he associated with the liver and bile sac (Siegel 1968:258). Those in whom dryness predominates are commonly moody, depressive, and suspicious.
The fact that the Swahili refer to the elements by the same names used for physical qualities of temperature and moisture might lead to the incorrect inference that they are, in fact, directly connected with these qualities. This mistaken idea might be strengthened by the fact that the hot element affects the body, for good or ill, most readily in the summertime, while the cold element is most effective in the winter. In fact, season is understood to affect body functioning indirectly by the influence of ambient temperature on how food is digested. Thus, the cold element tends to dominate the body in the winter and hot in the summer because the foods promoting hot are more effectively assimilated in the summer, while those promoting cold are more effectively assimilated in the winter.
In addition to variations due to sex and age, each individual has his or her own particular balance, which is significantly different from all others. A fanciful balance rendered, strictly for purposes of illustration, in numerical values for the elements might be 3:1/2:2 for one person, while another might be 1:3/3:1. One consequence of these differences is that individuals not only differ in character as a result of the different weightings of the elements in their balances but they are also more or less healthy depending on how stable their balances are. Differences in predisposition to particular diseases and kinds of diseases result from the same individual variations in balance.
When the influence of one or more of the elements becomes excessive, an imbalance occurs and is manifested as an illness. Only reestablishing the individual's customary elemental balance will end the illness. Although the season of the year has an indirect effect on the balance of elements, only aging, sex, food, and drink affect it directly.