The History and tradition of herbal medicine in Africa
African Herbal medicine Africa – also known as the motherland, is a land of great history, heritage and cultures. And just like all great civilisations, it has vast traditions and customs, especially knowledge of its own local herbs, foods and agriculture. In-fact you could say that it is crass ignorance to underplay the importance of
African Herbal medicine
Africa – also known as the motherland, is a land of great history, heritage and cultures.
And just like all great civilisations, it has vast traditions and customs, especially knowledge of its own local herbs, foods and agriculture.
In-fact you could say that it is crass ignorance to underplay the importance of herbs in both old and present-day Africa.
Herbal medicine in Africa intricately intertwines with the tradition and culture so much that it is usually a herculean task to convince Africans that conventional medicine is better.
The practice of herbal medicine in Africa is vast. Amongst its locals it is known to be able to provide cures from a wide range of illnesses and diseases like; high blood pressure, cholera, genitalia infections, epilepsy, asthma, hyperplasia, gout, venereal disease, and so on.
Moreover, people tend to underplay a whole lot of cures from herbal medicine in Africa; mostly because there are little regulations and poor documentation of the effects of these medicines.
A Brief History of African Traditional Medicine
Before the evolution of medicine into the form, we know them as, plants (herbs) were used as remedies to the different ailments and diseases people suffer.
Although it is difficult to pinpoint how the actual practice for herbs/roots/barks of trees as medicine began, parchments/documents trace the earliest practices to ancient Egypt (Africa).
The ancient Egyptians and the Sumerians were interested in the ‘strange’ abilities of different plants like garlic, Opium, Castor oil, laurel, etc.
They started to cultivate and experiment with the plants; to see which parts were useful.
Religion and culture in Africa are the most significant factors that lend ‘credibility’ to the use of herbal medicine. This is why most of the healing techniques or methods of diagnosis mostly have myths or rituals that guide them.
In Africa, traditional healers are in charge of administering herbal medicines to their callers (patients).
Example of the kind of ‘Native doctors’ in Africa are;
Herbalists: They deal in collecting the herbs, extracting the medicinal parts, preparing it (mixing, steaming, cooking, grinding, etc.), and prescribing the herb to the patients.
Traditional birth attenders: Birthing in many parts of Africa is more of a spiritual and psychological affair than physical, so they offer ‘metaphysical’ help during labour/childbirth.
Bone setters: They are natural ‘orthopaedics’ and help to mend bones, treat fractures, etc.
Traditional surgeons: in their crude way, they perform ‘minor’ openings in the body and treat their patients.
But in Africa, the bulk of these traditional practitioners also double as one of the following;
What are African Herbs (medicinal plants)?
The general definition for a medicinal plant is a shrub/grass/flower that contains compounds that can manage/cure diseases, medical conditions, and ailments. Any medicine you derive from plants, irrespective of the method, is a herb.
Some popular African herbs with significant therapeutic effects are;
Acacia Senegal (gum Arabic)
The use of this herb goes way back in time; people extract the juice from barks of the tree; to cure ailments like bleeding, bronchitis, diarrhoea, and other respiratory diseases.
Aloe Ferox (cape aloe)
This plant is peculiar to the Southern parts of Africa; healers mainly use it as a laxative. It also has other properties that aid in curing arthritis, sinusitis, conjunctivitis, or treating burns.
This shrub is peculiar to Northern regions in Africa like; Morocco and Tunisia and can cure conditions like hypertension, bronchitis, diabetes.
It is one of the most versatile of all the herbs. Since pre-historic times, healers have used it to cure eye and skin diseases, fever, asthma, hypertension, syphilis, diarrhoea, and a lot more.
Traditional healers use this herb to brew bitter drinks to cure; rheumatism, skin disorders, and venereal disease. It has effects on the glucose and blood sugar levels in the body.
You can use this caffeine-free, aromatic herbal plant to prepare tea; it can cure chronic catarrh, pulmonary tuberculosis, and increase the appetite.
In ancient times healers used this plant to cure ailments like analgesia, malaria, migraines, heartburn, indigestion. Nowadays, it is used for illnesses like; fever, oedema, appetite loss.
It is one of the most popular vegetables in the continent; healers extract the juice from its pulp, seed, and leaves to tackle ailments like diabetes.
Umckalaobo (South African geranium)
This plant is peculiar in the coastal areas of South Africa, and their herbalists use the herb to treat respiratory infections, bronchitis, and other common colds.
African Traditional medicine
Early traditional healers claim that most of their inspirations in choosing the perfect plant to concoct into medicines come from observing the nutritional patterns of herbivorous animals.
Science even corroborates this theory by claiming that species like chimpanzees, butterflies, elephants alter their diets/feeding patterns when they feel ill; they nimble on herbs they wouldn’t eat normally.
We can define traditional medicine as the combination of skills, knowledge, and practices with a hold in the culture and traditions of the people to diagnose, and cater to the health of the people. When foreign regions try to adopt Africa’s traditional healing, it becomes Complementary or Alternative Medicine (CAM).
Herbal practices In Africa
There are over 40,000 species of plant indigenous to Africa, and only about 5,000 of these species are used one way or the other for medicinal purposes. The tropical climate of Africa significantly affects the metabolites present in plants. The high exposure to UV rays and other harsh conditions make them develop more ‘chemo-preventive’ substances.
Herbal medicine in Southern Africa (SA)
It is a common belief that traditional healers are the doctors of herbal medicines in Africa. South Africa has over 200,000 traditional healers as opposed to the measly 25,000 ‘western-trained’ doctors in the country.
In South Africa, there are two main types of healers within their rural communities;
Inyangas (herbalist): These healers use medicines they extract from plants and animals, and are usually males. They do not claim to have supernatural powers; they spend a great deal of time learning the trade.
Sangomas (diviners): They depend mostly on divinations, revelations, and other mystical approaches in ‘muti’/treatments. They are ‘chosen’ by the ancestors or the gods, and they serve as a medium to the people. Divination always comes with interpretations of bones that the Sangoma throws to the ground.
Herbal medicine practices in Kenya
More than half of resident Kenyans depend on traditional healers and herbs as their common source of healthcare. Kenyans use herbal medicines for a wide range of conditions like; child birthing, ailments/disease, psychological and spiritual reasons. Further proof of the eminence of herbal medicine in Kenya is that; there are 950 Kenyans per traditional healers, compared to 8,000 people per medical doctor. 
In 1967, the government repealed the ban on herbal medicine, consequent of the advocacy from the WHO, which led to the growth of herbal medicine. 
Herbal medicine is still a common practice in modern-day Kenya. Still, the most significant obstacle it faces is the lack of integration plans by the government.
Conclusions: Limitations of Herbal medicines in Africa
The growth of traditional healing in Africa seems to be stagnating, more as a result of policies and the lackadaisical attitude of the government.
Currently, most African countries do not have regulatory bodies that control and administer the use of herbal medicines within the country. Unfortunately, this has lead to charlatans and shams taking over the herbal medicine business.
Also, the non-regulation of herbal medicines can lead to complications in the body system; the chemical/pharmacological interactions of the herbs could be dangerous to the body. It is leading people to have a great distrust of African traditional medicines in treating ailments.