For the past 6 months I have been living in Ololosokwan- a Maasai village in Northern Tanzania, immediately beside the Serengeti National Park and just below the border of Kenya. The fascinating traditions of the Maasai culture, plus the remote location of this village, create an environment that is otherworldly.
The Maasai people are pastoralists- so goats, sheep, and cows roam the region in herds small and large. Cows are the most important. Not just of the livestock, of everything. The number of cows in one’s herd corresponds with wealth, and an offering of cows is made when a man wishes to marry a woman. Each cow is given a name and they are tended to with great care. Most often the ultimate goal is more cows. Amongst the livestock herds and vast stretches of green are Maasai bomas- homes made from sticks, dirt, and cow dung. These structures are relatively small and dark, with a fire pit in the middle (which also makes them quite smokey).
I journeyed to Ololosokwan to teach a jewelry training program for 20 Maasai women. A culture rich in beadwork and handmade adornments- I have been both teaching these women and learning from them their traditional skills. What struck me most about their methods was their resourcefulness; I often asked where certain materials came from and the answer was usually “nyumbani” (from home). I came to learn that the plastic used in the jewelry was salvaged from cooking oil containers, the twine made from deconstructed plastic bags, tubing taken from old pens, and their “oldedos” (needles) are made from salvaged wire hammered (with a rock) into a tree root. They are instinctively resourceful, but for them it is both a gift and a challenge; they have the capability for creative problem solving, combined with the difficulties of limited resources.
They make use of what is available to them- be it in nature or other products of their environment. They will continue to use them, unless a better option presents itself. For example- their tradition of bead-making by dipping hollow seeds into paint has vanished because beads in a variety of sizes and colors are now available for purchase in the markets. Buying them is time saving, the beads are more uniform and easier to use, so the only trade-off is the cost of money. Still, in Maasai culture, wearing valuables is a sign of status, so the price of beads is included in their decorative value. It is with this combination of purchased materials and those foraged “from home” that their beautiful adornments are presently made.
These roots of resourcefulness run throughout the Maasai culture, and their traditional medicine is no exception. A naturally resourceful practice, plant medicine could be considered among the materials “from home”. For the Maasai, desired plants may be harvested and stored, or gathered fresh from the surrounding forests. Their knowledge of plants is extensive; their language (Maa) includes a specific name for each one! In this way, the Maasai are customarily raised to learn plant identification as well as their medicinal uses. However, just as the beads entered the market, modern medicine appeared in the “duka la dawa” (medicine shop). Given the severity and aggressiveness of diseases here, the availability of powerful drugs, namely antibiotics, has no doubt saved many lives and presented solutions for previously incurable illnesses. They are relatively fast-acting and widely available (depending on one’s location), so the only obvious downside is the monetary cost. Still, this cost makes them valuable, and thus their consumption a sign of status. Unlike beadwork traditions, modern medicine options have not meshed with those “from home”. Rather, for many Maasai bomas, the ease and appeal of new drugs has caused them to replace natural medicine altogether.
While modern medicines are without a doubt useful, overuse and over-reliance can present problems. Furthermore, these powerful medications are designed to treat specific diseases, with a particular course of treatment. Proper tests are needed to determine whether such treatment options are necessary. However, most Maasai communities lack the availability of proper health facilities- to administer tests, prescribe medication, and to advise on the appropriate course of treatment. Because of this, antibiotics and other strong medications may be resorted to for a range of symptoms, large and small. Without proper education on their negative side effects, they are used frequently and indiscriminately. Unfortunately, these medicines are very taxing on the body- particularly for the organs that are absorbing and processing them- the stomach, liver, and kidneys. In the case of antibiotics, ingestion does not just kill the offending bacteria, but also all of the helpful bacterias that live in the stomach. These negative side-effects are acceptable when serious illness presents (in these parts examples are malaria, typhoid, brucella, and tuberculosis), but it is also very important that they are taken for their full course of treatment. If the course is cut short and there is still bacteria in the body, the bacteria will become resistant to the medication resulting in a potentially life-long infection, no longer treatable with antibiotics. Thus, while these drugs are very important for treating serious diseases, it is important that they are used properly and sparingly.
Natural medicine works a bit differently. It may not be the best choice for treating severe infections; however, it acts wonderfully as a preventative, restorative, and even complementary treatment. Preventatively it can support the body’s immune system and various organs so that the body is more capable of battling disease. Restoratively it can provide vitamins, minerals, and general nutritive support so that the body can heal efficiently. As a complementary treatment, herbs are often able to work alongside pharmaceuticals- to provide nutritive support, reduce unpleasant side-effects, or boost immune function. Thus, while western medicine may be geared at killing bacteria or eliminating pain, plant medicine works to strengthen the body and support healing.
From April 18th to May 15th I worked with a group of herbalists, doctors, and medical students in Wasso Hospital, Tanzania (just 50 kilometers from Ololosokwan). As herbalists we were three: myself, Annie SewDev– an herbalist EMT from Florida, and Guido Masé– a teaching herbalist at the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism. Our month at Wasso Hospital involved harvesting, medicine making, treating (both internally and topically), educating, and of course learning from a medical environment much different than our own. In the course of doing so we hoped to re-instill interest in plant medicine and communicate its value in healthcare- to both patients and hospital staff. We also worked to document our research and findings, so that Maasai traditional knowledge can be preserved in the midst of new medical technology.
We made every effort to be resourceful in our approaches. While we did bring certain supplies to share with the hospital- things like gloves, gauze, and other first aid supplies, we wanted all of our plant medicine to come from the surrounding environment. This approach yields cost-effective treatment options for an area where resources can be very limited, while also communicating the idea that natural medicine is still desired and useful. The medicine “from home” does not have to be a way of the past- when used appropriately alongside modern remedies, each plays an important role in healthcare.
Below are six natural resources that we used while treating patients in Wasso Hospital. These posters, written in Swahili, were displayed outside of the minor theatre, so that hospital patients and staff can continue to learn about preparing and using natural medicine.
An infusion of ginger root reduces swelling and increases circulation in cases of trauma and diabetes.
How to prepare: Boil water. Mix one tablespoon of ginger powder (or 3 tablespoons chopped fresh roots) with one liter of hot water. Wait fifteen minutes, then strain.
How to use: Pour hot ginger infusion on a towel or cloth. Wrap it around the affected area and leave it until it has cooled. Use at least two times every day.
Lippia is antibacterial and good for washing wounds.
How to prepare: Mix one cup of leaves with one and a half liters of hot water. Wait fifteen minutes, then strain and add one teaspoon of salt. (It will stay good for 2 days)
How to use: You can pour it over the wound or irrigate inside. You can also use it with gauze to clean the wound. (Use like saline solution)
Honey kills bacteria and can be used to treat wounds.
How to use: Put on gauze when dressing wound.
Prickly Pear is a cooling medicine that also kills bacteria, used to treat burns. You can use it whole or mix it in a blender to make a gel.
To harvest: Carefully remove spikes, then cut of the pad.
To prepare: You can split the pad down the middle or remove skin and blend in a blender.
How to use: Put the inside of the pad (or the prepared gel) over the wound. Wrap with gauze.
Usnea powder can be sprinkled on any wound or burn.
How to use whole: You can chew the plant and then put on the wound. This also works for fungal infections.
How to make powder: Put plants in a blender and grind until green powder has separated from white inner thread. Sift powder through a strainer.
How to use power: Sprinkle over the wound, after washing, then dress with honey and gauze.
Eucalyptus is medicine for the lungs and for washing wounds.
How to prepare: Mix one cup of leaves with one and a half liters of hot water. Wait 15 minutes, then strain.
How to use: Pour half a liter of infusion while hot in a basin. Cover the head with a blanket, then deeply inhale the stream (with eyes closed). Continue for 5 minutes.
*It can also be as an antibacterial wound wash
To read more about our experiences in Wasso Hospital, check out Guido’s article- Integrated technologies: building capacity and resilience and Annie’s- East Africa Reflections