Updated: Feb 8
It was once thought that Africans had no culture, no tradition, and no linguistic prowess. It was believed that the race only reasoned within the bouts of food, sex and shelter. Hegel (1956), for example, echoed this view. Building upon Joseph Conrad’s similar stance in his Heart of Darkness where he alleged that Africans had no "soul", Hegel believed that the consciousness of the life of the Negro had not yet attained a realization of any substantial existence.
As an early intervention and mainstream retort, Chinua Achebe, the father of Modern African Literature countered that “African peoples did not hear of culture from the first time from Europeans…their societies were not mindless but frequently had a philosophy of great depth and value and beauty…It is this dignity that many African peoples all but lost in the colonial period, and it is this dignity that they must now regain…” Achebe was right. African societies had a thriving structure, culture, tradition, belief system as well as curative methods and measures which formed the thread that held and kept autochthons since time.
Way before the advent of Western medicine, Africans had had their effective ways of dealing with diseases. Healers, now commonly known as Traditional Medical Practitioners (TMP), have adopted local methods and herbs to treat various ailments on both physical and spiritual levels. However, jaundiced perceptions, the active advent of colonialism and the excesses of its wake have ensured the dwindling of this potent medical method to the extent that today, African herbal remedies still search for the recognition they truly deserve at home. This is also despite the remarkability of such herbal practices as products of an orally inherited, in-depth knowledge of the medicinal properties of indigenous plants and the pharmaceutical footprints mandatory in making medications of those plants such as identification, concoction, dosage as well as efficacy.
In today’s world, plants are the primary ingredients of most modern medicines, with natural products and their attendant upshots representing “more than 50% of all drugs in clinical use, of which higher plants contribute more than 25%” (Ezekwesili-Ofili & Okaka, 2019: 207). Pharmaceutical industries now more than ever consider the use of natural products and plants as a source for the chemical synthesis for medications. As such, plants that were locally found and locally embraced now extend their twigs beyond the chores of Africa, to improve the frontiers of modern pharmaceuticals and scientific knowledge in developed countries. Examples of such plants is the Combretum grandiflorum locally known as Ikedike, the Gloriosa superba known in Yoruba as “Ewé Ajé”, the Afzelia Africana known as the “Aparata” in Igbo language. Typically, chemical components such as phenols, alkaloids and glycosides are harnessed from such plants and are not only used in the treatment of relief from pain but also in the “cosmetics industries” – among others (Ezekwesili-Ofili & Okaka, 2019).
In the current day Yoruba land, plants like Ewé Dóngóyárò, Ewé Ako Ìbépe, Ewé Osàn, Ewé Mòríngà (which still lack proper taxonomy) have been known to treat a wide range of illnesses. Equally, many traditional medical practitioners are good psychotherapists, proficient in orthopaedics, impressive in the treatment of snake bites, in midwifery, in the removal of tuberculosis lymphadenitis, in obliterating barrenness and miscarriages, treatment of incessant headaches, migraines and infections, as well as curing madness and faith healing. Nevertheless, the recognition, improvements and syncretism by the modern world to push the frontiers of medicine has still not allayed the inward negative perceptions towards our own herbs and practitioners.
Simply put, Africans still see African Traditional Medicine as inferior and its practitioners have yet to fully infiltrate their immediate community. This is perhaps due to the age-long identities that, I think, have been indoctrinated into the African psyche. Corroborating Blyden’s view that that which one is told grips one so much that it regulates the very being, existence and relation to others because of its power that “derives its strength from the fact that we deeply believe what it tells us; in fact, we are committed to its course (1974, 153). Therefore, the years of stereotypes have engendered a negative inward perception and there is an urgent need to shake off this inherited identities and perceptions as regards our culture and particularly our curative methods.
To reach the potential of our God-gifted African traditional herbal medicine, Africa and Africans must first change their perspectives to African owned traditions and philosophy. We must see to it that our culture, which, thankfully, is gradually shredding itself from the robes of prejudices, is even more looked into. In this case, our phytomedicines must be seen as genuine ways of curing ailments and not to be discarded as scraps of madness and relic.
Africa must invest in and improve research into our traditional medicine in order to enlarge local production of scientifically evaluated traditional medicines. This will also reduce or put an end to the lack of standardization which will, in turn, abolish indiscriminate, irresponsible, or non-regulated use of herbs. Perhaps countries in the African region should also seek to recognize traditional medical practice by putting out regulatory bodies and policies that will be fully implemented to ensure that practitioners are accredited and qualified while still maintaining the customs. This may come with a licence that is subject to renewal.
We should also source for partnerships with modern health services and pharmacovigilance sectors in order to improve the nomenclature, taxonomy, quality and attainments of our herbs. Such partnerships will ensure that there is not only coherence on preparations, dosage and procedures as a result of consultations from different traditional medical practitioners but will also lead to a more modern concept in the synthesis or manufacture of herbs.
The standards of African traditional herbal medicine should also be improved to match international standards through intercountry and international collaborations. This will create an environment that enables capacity building, development and production of traditional herbal medicines of high standards.
All of the aforementioned, in turn, would reduce the cost of imported medicines and increase the countries’ revenue and employment opportunities in both industry and medical practice. With time, large scale cultivation and harvesting of medicinal plants will provide sufficient raw materials for research, local production, and industrial processing and packaging for export. Most importantly, embracing our local remedies will be embracing our pristine African culture which is reminiscent of the period of paradise on earth, the pre-colonial period.
Africa has been blessed with potent leaves and phyto resources that subvert the hold of diseases. Their forest is gifted with herbs and trees that possess active scavenging activities against deadly illnesses. All that remains is for us to escape the doom of negative self-perception of our own natural resources. We should look inwards and invest in the potentials of our trado-medical practitioners and adopt our tropical plants to cure ailments. Indeed, as the gifted flowers of curative saps lie in the African abyss, so too, does the beautiful dawn lie in the decentring of inherited negative inward perceptions and prejudices.
Join the conversation on African Herbal Remedies here: https://www.oriire.com/community/history-heritage/african-herbal-remedies
Achebe, C. 1988. Hopes and impediments. United States of America: Anchor Books Publishers
Blyden, E. 1974. The Negro in ancient history. The people of Africa: A series of papers on their character. Eds M.S Henry. Ibadan: Ibadan University Press. 6-21.
Ezekwesili-Ofili, J. O. & Okaka A.N.C. 2019. Herbal Medicines in African Traditional Medicine. 10.5772/intechopen.80348.
Hegel, G.W.F. 1956. The philosophy of history. New York: Dover.
Obiechina, E. 1975 Culture, tradition and society in the West African novel, Cambridge: C.U. P
Oyebola, A. 1982. Black man’s dilemma. Ibadan: Board publications.