Research conducted by the International Development Research Centre (IRDC) estimates the percentage of sub-Saharan Africans who regularly use traditional medicine for primary healthcare to be as high as 85%. But its popularity goes way beyond a nostalgic link to history and ancestors. For many Africans, access to hospitals and healthcare is limited due to poor infrastructure. And even if they get to a clinic, overcrowding and long queues are a daily expectation and costs are prohibitive too. Thus, traditional healers have and continue to experience a continual stream of people making use of their services.
But what exactly is traditional African medicine? It can be described as an “alternative medicine discipline that incorporates indigenous herbalism and spirituality and involves herbalists, healers, and midwives.” This healthcare is ingrained in the African socio-cultural context and does not only take the symptoms of a patient into consideration when making a diagnosis.
Previously valued only in its home communities, traditional medicine has in recent years seen increased interest from external parties. A paper published on Pambazuka News, Africa: Overview on Medicinal Plants and Traditional Medicine, states that recent developments have led researchers to appreciate anew “the precise descriptive capacity and rationality of various traditional taxonomies as well as the effectiveness of the treatments employed.” Over and above that the pharmaceutical industry has come to consider traditional medicine as a source of identification of bioactive agents that can be used in the preparation of synthetic medicines. It is the natural products industry, however, that has been the one to take the first step in merging traditional and western healthcare, and now we see a variety of traditional remedies available on shelves in large retail outlets.
The most popular among them include:
Buchu (scientific name: Agathosma betulina)
With a long history in its treatment of a variety of maladies including arthritis and stomach issues, Buchu was taken to the western market when Michael Stander – former Managing Director of Cape Kingdom Nutraceuticals – started creating BuchuLife products which are now widely available in pharmaceutical chains for the management of hypertension, as an anti-inflammatory and antiseptic.
Previously valued only in its home communities, traditional medicine has in recent years seen increased interest from external parties.
Cancer Bush / Insiswa (isiZulu) / Umnwele (isiXhosa) (Sunderlandia)
Traditionally, Sunderlandia is used by healers as a blood purifier and all-round tonic. It's considered one of the significant and multipurpose medicinal plants in Southern Africa and today is available in tincture, capsule and herbal tea form. Recently Sunderlandia has been championed as a herbal aid for HIV/AIDS patients, research for which is ongoing.
Milkwort / Ishinga (isiZulu) / Ishongwane (isiXhosa) (Xysmalobium undulatum)
Used to treat abscesses, dysentery, menstrual pain, and headaches, amongst other ailments, this plant is on the market under the brand name of Uzara as an antidiarrhoeal. It was also released in Europe under the name of Dysmenural before they stopped production.
Pygeum (Prunus africana)
Uses include reducing inflammation in patients with an enlarged prostate, particularly benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH). Pygeum is sold in a number of countries worldwide as Pigenil, an antiviral, and as Tadenan in France.
Could a happy marriage be one where traditional medicine is regulated with as much fervour as western medicine and incorporated into basic healthcare practices? Perhaps this might address the lack of effective and safe healthcare in remote areas and even give much-needed validity to an industry that has taken care of thousands of generations of Africans with much success. Cures incorporating traditional medicines might be just what the doctor needs to order to take healthcare in Africa forward.