The Esan People: Herbs and Heritage

Tracy Osaremhen
November 11, 2023

My grandfather's surname is Okosun. It means the son of Osun - Osun is the Esan god of magic and medicine. In addition, it is believed that Osun is the latent magical force that is within leaves, plants and medicines. I once asked my mom what prompted the name since I'm aware that among my people, the events surrounding one's birth most times determine their name.

She told me the story of how my great-grandfather's mother always lost every child she gave birth to, so when she was pregnant with my great-grandfather, a neighbour of hers took her to a priest of Osun who gave her herbs to drink all the period she was pregnant and told her to name the child Okosun when he is born. She indeed gave birth to a healthy baby boy whom she named Okosun by the priest's instructions, and unlike his predecessors, Okosun survived and lived to a ripe old age.

The Esan (anglicised Ishan) people are an ethnic group who live in central Edo state in Southern Nigeria. They are one of the three major ethnic groups in Edo state. They are popularly known for farming, hunting, their multi coloured cloth called Igbu Ododo which piqued the interest of European traders, and most importantly for their traditional medical skills. Another noticeable trait about them is their hospitality and kinship, be it a foreigner or an indigene, they're referred to as "Obhio" (o-we-o) a word that means brother or sister. This value is the foundation on which their customs and culture is built. One man's problem is the headache of the entire community. Whether one is sick or healthy, his well being is a matter that is the concern of everyone.

In the days before we became consumed by urbanisation, every Esan person had common knowledge of plants that could help cure simple ailments. More complicated treatments or diagnosis were handled by specialised traditional medicine men or women. The Esan's knowledge of herbs and plants are so vast that it is even incorporated into their food - one of such is omoebe ( popularly known as black soup). They are blessed with a lot of plants, some of which are foreign to other tribes.

Growing up, my parents incorporated a lot of Esan values in me and my siblings, one of which is a foundational knowledge of plants and herbs.

Though we lived in the city, my siblings and I grew up with our parents giving us such local herbs in the morning before breakfast or at night after dinner. It felt like a family ritual with everyone one of us already accustomed to our roles: I and my brother check the bushes around our house for plants my mum had already taught us, my mom selected the plants we picked to be sure they were the right ones, my cousin ground the leaves on a grinding stone because my mum believes the grinding stone gives the leaves an extra flavour, my sister cuts open the lime or lemon we'll use and squeezes out their juices.

My mom would mix the citrus juice and the leaf paste with a bit of water to make it lighter, and then add a bit of salt and pepper to spice up the taste, after which she'd give each of us a drink ( with plastic cups kept specially for the purpose of these medicines).

The days we weren't drinking medicines gotten from leaves, then it had to be from tree barks or roots. The process of preparing them involved pounding in a mortar ( I or my brother did the pounding) with a pestle until the tree bark or roots, and other ingredients added which sometimes included alligator pepper or usira seeds (piper guineense) all turn into smooth powder. The powder is then transferred to a plate in which warm water, salt and the liquid from the citrus fruit is added.

PhotoCredit: Kay-edits

It was a common thing to watch neighbours and family friends come to my parents for medicines for various ailments. Though my parents aren't herbalists, they never turned anyone down and always helped.The real experience though was with my grandmother. She introduced me to a world of plants I never knew existed, even plants regarded as weeds, she taught me their significance and uses. I learned from her to be conscious of the plants around me, because I never knew when they might be needed.

Photocredit: Kay-edits

During one of our walks, I asked her how come almost all households had a knowledge of herbs and she explained to me that such knowledge was passed from one generation to another.

"As an Obhi-Esan (an Esan child)" she said,

"it is your responsibility to be one with nature, to be friends with the trees, flowers and grasses because you never know when they'll help save you, your family or friend." She explained how numerous plants had become nearly extinct and very rare to find because of incessant bush burning, felling of trees and other man made casualties.

She adds " It doesn't mean though that we fold our hands and watch. We make do with those available."

In every village, there are men and women versed in the knowledge and use of herbs, bark and roots of trees. Various families might have special areas they're skilled at: some could mend broken bones, treat specific types of ailments, or help women who have issues conceiving.

My father's family I learnt are good at fixing broken bones and neutralising poisons (varying from snake bites to food poisoning). Such people most times turn out to be full-time herbal practitioners.

In some families, every member of the family participates in learning the art of healing. While in some cases, a family might choose a specific member of the family who displays the most interest in the family's specialty, train the individual and then the various heads of the family would come together to bless the chosen individual and instruct him/her on the family's values. In a situation where the individual pays no heed to the family's value, whatever medication the person administers to a patient would prove futile.

The individual would either have to apologise or someone else take his/her place. After which the heads of the family would have to come together once again to bless the medicines and the person administering it in order for it to be effective again.

Some people though are born with the gift of the knowledge of herbs, while others have to train hard to become specialists (it can be considered as one going to a medical school to study in order to become a doctor).

Among most herbalists and healers, it is a common practice not to name a fee or ask for a paltry sum for their services rendered. They rather prefer to treat their patients, when the patient becomes healthy, he/she can then bring items of their choice which could range from foodstuffs to money, to show their appreciation.

People specialised in this field are referred to as "Obo"(or-bow). My grandmother though refuses to be called one because according to her it was too much of a task, besides she prefers giving her prescriptions and her services for free to the few who came to her.

The day came when my parents and I were to go back to the city after one of our visits to the village. My grandmother asked me to walk with her. We walked down a narrow path, the morning sun beaming in all of its glory I guess in anticipation of what was about to happen although I wasn't aware. As we kept walking, dew drops from plants and the reddish brown of the soil stained my feet which i admired. I pointed at various plants my grandmother had shown me and mentioned their uses I could recall. We got to one of my grandmother's gardens and she pointed at a tree

"Plants" she said ,

"serve as a strong bond for families. Just as the roots of a tree run deep in the ground, so also is our belief in the potency of plants to save a life and also keep our family, friends and even strangers strong and healthy."

She gently tapped my shoulder and looked into my eyes, I looked back at her and for the first time I realised just how old she was, and how much she must have seen, she continued speaking

" No one can survive without Ikhun (ee-khh-uun), (which is medicine)."

She bent down and uprooted a small ordinary looking plant, told me about its benefits, how to use it and the procedures. After which she gently pulled the leaves of the plant one by one and placed them on my palms then she prayed that whomever I used the leaves on would find it beneficial. Deep down in me, I knew this was something special because my mom had asked me earlier if my grandmother had counted any leaves on my palm and I had replied no. I stared back at my grandmother with a satisfied look on her face, her face breaking into a smile revealing her gap tooth and it dawned on me I had just experienced the passing down of knowledge from one generation to another. My great-grandmother had passed hers to my mother, my grandmother to me, and maybe one day, my mom will pass hers to my daughter.

Photocredit: Kay-edits


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