Return to Herbal Medicine

Ogunsakin Mustapha
8 Min Read
Prof Hope O’Rukevbe Eghagha

By Hope O’Rukevbe Eghagha

We need to work on our local herbs. There are too many herbs and roots in our bushes wasting away. Our ancestors crudely used them. There were no labs. There were no lab scientists. Yet they knew the herbs to cure malaria. To improve fertility. They knew how to put the ‘womb in place’ through massaging. To treat bone fracture. To free the bowels through extreme bowel movement. They knew how to treat fainting spells. To control epilepsy. Migraine. They knew how to boost blood levels. They embalmed the dead. Some were trial and error methods which evolved into something permanent. Yet, this knowledge has been seriously denigrated, wasted sort of. It is further complicated by the refusal of those who have the knowledge to share it. In the past, such knowledge ran in families, passed on from father to son through practice. Why have we allowed our traditional thoughts and healing processes to lie fallow?

These thoughts came to my mind as I read the headlines about alligator pepper and COVID 19 treatment as championed by Afe Babalola University. I don’t have the details. But the fact that some peer-reviewed processes had suggested that alligator pepper could counteract the virus got me thinking. What have our medical schools and our pharmacologists done with herbs which are traditionally believed to have medicinal properties? I have doctor friends who poohpooh the idea of herbs for treatment of medical conditions. They usually fault the traditional herbalists for not being scientific. For example, they ask: what quantity of herbs should one ingest to complete treatment? What is the makeup of that concoction that is administered to control epileptic fits?

For me, our science community should be interrogating the herbal treatment practice by asking some questions. They should ask: what is the link between eating cassava yam and control of prostate enlargement? How can we establish that onions taken in high concentration can help prostate issues? How do the ‘bone setters’ sometimes treat extremely bad cases which orthodox medicine had condemned to amputation? What are the medicinal properties of bitter leaf or bitter kola or scent leaf (efirin in Yoruba)? What is the link between steaming in guava leaves, pawpaw leaves and efirin boiled in hot water and curing malaria or feverish conditions? What do traditional birth attenders do that ease birth? What skills do they have that can reverse breech babies just before birth?

A nation which thinks scientifically, and which have self-confidence would have its medical scientists collaborate with the local herbs’ men and code their herbal mixtures after studying the properties in a laboratory. We love everything foreign. We condemn local creations. Colonial impositions have not helped matters. That encounter ensured that everything African was rendered inferior. Our dressing, our traditions, our cultural affirmations, even our languages were reduced in worth by claiming that Europeans came to civilize us. In school we were punished for speaking vernacular. It did not matter that we could comprehend some complex processes if they were explained in our local languages. Sadly, sixty years after independence we have not fully understood where and how the rain began to beat us.

There are some nations that have made good with their herbs by codifying them and ensuring that the properties are known and documented. In some cases, their limitations are specified. This is what the Chinese have done with their teas. There are Chinese shops in London selling Chinese teas to control hypertension or caplets for cholesterol reduction. There are Chinese experts promoting their herbs in Nigeria, in America and the United Kingdom. What started as local brews have been globalized, fully registered in other jurisdictions. There are outlets in Lagos where Chinese medicine is applied for local health challenges.

I once had a football accident as a boy in Sapele Delta State that bruised my right thumb badly. The shot fired at me as goalkeeper was too much for my young hands. The pain was killing. It radiated from the thumb up to my arm. It was the days of codeine and APC as painkillers which were readily administered. I only got temporary relief. Then my dad returned from work. He opted to take me to an Ijaw man who treated fractures and bone related problems. When we arrived in his place, he was having dinner. He went on eating his meal, inviting us to join. After his meal, he sat calmly and asked what the problem was. I explained as much as I could while being ravaged by the pain. He asked me to lie down. I did. He was so calm that if I had my way, I would have urged him to speed up the process. He went for my elbow. I told him that the pain was in my thumb and wrist respectively. He calmly asked me to shut up. He placed his thumb with some pressure on the inside of my arm and started tracing, moving slowly. At a point, there was a tingle and the pain vanished as if I had simply imagined that it had been there. He asked me to call again if the pain returned. I never went back. The pain was gone forever. I will never forget that experience. It opened my eyes to the skills of our Ijaw brothers to bone treatment!

Some hospitals in Lagos State now accommodate traditional birth attenders in childbirth processes. This is good. But the nation should move into the field of herbs. What can we do with our herbs and make them more reliable? If we have herbal mixtures that can cure pile or haemorrhoids why don’t we commission our medical people to investigate and incorporate them into treating the condition in orthodox hospitals? It is my humble view that the rich vegetation which we have in Nigeria could contain treatment for cancer and other serious diseases which are yet unexplored. Research and development are key to developing our local treatment forms. The government through the Ministries of Health should create an atmosphere to make this possible. I expect universities to lead the drive instead of struggling to publish outlandish essays in international journals to enhance their chances for grants and fellowships which bear no relationship with the problems which control our people.

The current world order which makes the COVID-19 vaccines scarce in Nigeria and Africa ought to make us return to our local herbs by improving them and verifying their efficacy in treating ailments that plague our people.


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