By Hope O’Rukevbe Eghagha
We need to work on our local herbs. There are too many grasses and roots in our withering bushes. Our ancestors used them roughly. There were no laboratories. There were no laboratory scientists. Yet they knew the herbs to cure malaria. To improve fertility. They knew how to put the “uterus in place” through massage. To treat the bone
fracture. To free the intestines through extreme bowel movements. They knew how to deal with fainting spells. To control epilepsy. Migraine. They knew how to raise blood levels. They embalmed the dead. Some were trial and error methods that evolved into something permanent. Yet this knowledge has been seriously denigrated, in a way wasted. It is further complicated by the refusal of those who have the knowledge to share it. In the past, this knowledge ran in families, was transmitted from father to son through practice. Why have we left our traditional thoughts and healing processes fallow?
These thoughts came to mind while reading the headlines about alligator pepper and COVID 19 treatment championed by Afe Babalola University. I don’t have the details. But the fact that some peer-reviewed processes have suggested that alligator pepper can thwart the virus got me thinking. What have our medical schools and pharmacologists done with the herbs traditionally thought to have medicinal properties? I have doctor friends who shy away from the idea of herbs for the treatment of medical conditions. They generally criticize traditional herbalists for not being scientific. For example, they ask: how much herb should one ingest to complete the treatment? What is the composition of this concoction which is administered to control epileptic seizures?
For me, our scientific community should interrogate the practice of herbal treatment by asking a few questions. They should ask themselves: what is the link between the consumption of cassava yam and the control of an enlarged prostate? How can we establish that onions taken in high concentration can help prostate problems? How do “bonesetters” sometimes deal with extremely serious cases that orthodox medicine had condemned to amputation? What are the medicinal properties of bitter leaf or bitter kola or fragrant leaf (efirin in Yoruba)? What is the connection between steaming in guava leaves, papaya leaves and efirin boil in hot water and cure malaria or feverish states? What do traditional birth attendants do to facilitate childbirth? What skills do they have that can breech invert babies just before birth?
A nation that thinks scientifically and is self-confident would see its medical scientists collaborating with local herb men and coding their herbal blends after studying the properties in a lab. We love everything foreign. We condemn local creations. Colonial impositions did not help matters. This encounter ensured that the whole African was made inferior. Our dress, our traditions, our cultural affirmations, even our languages have been devalued by claiming that the Europeans came to civilize us. At school, we were punished for speaking in the vernacular. It didn’t matter that we could understand some complex processes if they were explained in our local languages. Unfortunately, sixty years after independence, we have not fully understood where and how the rain started hitting us.
Some nations have done good with their herbs by codifying them and ensuring that the properties are known and documented. In some cases, their limits are specified. This is what the Chinese have done with their teas. There are Chinese shops in London selling Chinese teas to control high blood pressure or caplets to lower cholesterol. Chinese experts are promoting their herbs in Nigeria, America and the UK. What started as local beers has gone global, fully registered in other jurisdictions. There are outlets in Lagos where Chinese medicine is applied for local health issues.
I once had a football accident when I was a child in Sapele Delta State which badly bruised my right thumb. The shot that was fired at me as a goalie was too hard for my young hands. Pain killed. It radiated from the thumb to my arm. It was the days of codeine and APC as easy-to-administer pain relievers. I only got temporary relief. Then my father came back from work. He chose to take me to an Ijaw man who treated fractures and bone-related issues. When we got to his house, he was having dinner. He continued to eat his meal, inviting us to join him. After his meal, he sat down calmly and asked what the problem was. I explained as much as I could while being wracked with pain. He asked me to lie down. I did. He was so calm that if I had had my say, I would have urged him to speed up the process. He went for my elbow. I told him the pain was in my thumb and wrist respectively. He calmly asked me to be quiet. He placed his thumb with some pressure on the inside of my arm and started tracing, moving slowly. At one point there was a tingle and the pain disappeared as if I had just imagined it had been there. He asked me to call back if the pain came back. I never went back there. The pain was gone forever. I will never forget this experience. This opened my eyes to the skills of our Ijaw brothers in dealing with bones!
Some hospitals in Lagos State now accommodate traditional birth attendants during deliveries. Its good. But the nation should get into the herb business. What can we do with our herbs and make them more reliable? If we have herbal mixtures that can cure hemorrhoids or hemorrhoids, why don’t we instruct our medical staff to investigate and incorporate them into the treatment of disease in orthodox hospitals? I am humbly of the opinion that the rich vegetation we have in Nigeria could hold cures for cancer and other serious diseases that have yet to be explored. Research and development are essential to develop our local forms of treatment. Government, through Ministries of Health, should create an atmosphere to make this possible. I expect universities to lead the campaign instead of struggling to publish outlandish essays in international journals to increase their chances of getting grants and scholarships that have nothing to do with the issues that control our people.
The current world order that makes COVID-19 vaccines scarce in Nigeria and Africa should make us return to our local herbs by improving them and verifying their effectiveness in treating the ailments that afflict our people.