The value of traditional medicines and herbs


THE recent strike by nurses left thousands of patients stranded.
During the strike, I visited a sick relative at Mpilo Hospital, Bulawayo’s largest referral hospital.
I found my relative almost drowning in his vomit; he was suffering from a stomach ailment that prevented him from eating and left him seriously dehydrated.
The elderly Sister on Duty was exhausted and had administered a drip on him but he was not improving.
I kindly asked her what the problem was and she said it was just a simple case of diarrhoea. And she kindly asked me if I could get him some murumanyama, a traditional herb. I obliged and went to emkambo where they sell all sorts of traditional medicines and herbs. I got a portion and headed back to the hospital where we gave him some and within minutes, he was showing signs of recovery and was soon discharged.
If we value our traditional medicines, we can reduce our trips to hospitals.
We have many plants with immense medicinal value that can treat coughs, wounds, diarrhoea and many other ailments.
Today, even urbanised indigenous Zimbabweans have strong social links to traditional medicines through their beliefs in traditional doctors and herbalists.
It is ironical how our medicines have been demonised while the West continues to plunder the same herbs and process them in their countries, only to sell them to Africa at higher prices.
The West is presently engaged in serious biopiracy.
Biopiracy refers to the use of intellectual property laws (patents, plant breeders’ rights) to gain exclusive control over genetic resources that are based on the knowledge and innovation of indigenous peoples; biopiracy is even more likely to take place in the laboratories of industries and academia, and in patent offices in the Western cities.
The plunder of indigenous knowledge and genetic resources in Zimbabwe and southern Africa by Western pharmaceutical companies continues unhindered.
Since colonisation, private and public enterprises (or their intermediaries) are actively collecting, sampling and acquiring traditional knowledge for the development of pharmaceutical products.
It is evident that the pharmaceutical industries are near exhaustion in the development of synthetic drugs and have now turned to ‘higher’ plants for potential cures.
This, together with a fastest growing sector of health care, alternative medicine, is forcing pharmaceutical companies to re-focus their resources in medicine development.
Zimbabwe continues to lose important medicines to Western countries, notably gundamiti, a herb whose medicinal properties are said to reverse the symptoms of HIV/Aids.
Another example of a pirated plant is the devil’s claw found in the Kalahari Desert and the Zambezi Valley.
It has been used for a long time for the treatment of cancer of the skin and fevers of all kinds.
The plant is also being used in developed countries to treat several conditions such as gastro-intestinal problems, arthritis, diabetes and others.
However, a patent has been taken by a German company for the commercialisation and marketing of the products at global scale without considering benefit-sharing mechanisms with the local communities and governments.
The San people of southern Africa and the BaTonga of Zimbabwe and Zambia have for centuries used the hoodia gordonii plant to cure various ailments.
In addition to using it to treat eye infections and stomach pain, the tribes used hoodia on long hunting expeditions to suppress hunger and thirst and to also give them an energy boost.
Hoodia basically works by mimicking the effect that glucose has on nerve cells in the brain. This results in a feeling of fullness to the brain and diminishes appetite.
Already, thousands of patents on African plants have been filed: Brazzeine, a protein ‘500 times sweeter than sugar’ from a plant in Gabon has been used by locals for centuries; teff, the grain used in Ethiopia’s flat injera bread has been used by the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea from as far back as 4000BCE; thaumatin, a natural sweet protein extracted from the katemfe plant in West Africa; the African soap berry and the kunde Zulu cowpea; genetic material from the West African cocoa plant are among plants already being used by the West.
One of the most widely used herbs in modern pharmaceuticals is the common aloe vera.
This succulent plant has become a firm favourite with the alternative and contemporary healing industries.
The gel in the plant is commonly used for its soothing and healing qualities by the cosmetic industries for a number of conditions ranging from frostbite to multiple sclerosis.
The history of the plant goes back to Egypt. There are records of ancient Egyptians drawing pictures of aloe-vera plants on the walls of the temples, as long ago as 6 000 years.
They used the plants for its anti-fungal and anti-bacterial qualities.
In the absence of laws regulating the usage of Africa’s natural resources, the continent stands to lose out on indigenous knowledge of native flora.
On the flipside, multinationals stand to gain billions of dollars from using this knowledge which may even affect the availability of these plants to those who discovered the plants’ properties in the first place.
It will be a tragedy to have these indigenous plants absorbed by multinationals and repackaged to be sold to us at exorbitant prices.
Until African governments fund research into indigenous medicines and actively remove stigmas attached to African medicine, communities will not fully benefit from them.


  1. I really could not agree with you more. You see we MUST start to take pride in what we have and value it. Mental slavery is such an evil. Time to act is now. The medical Research Council here in the U.K. are looking to form liaison with Low to Medium Income Countries where research is indicated. Some of us who are keen to improve the health care system are ready to engage with the powers that be in a bid to address local potential.


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