Zimbabweans going back to the bush

This time it’s both blacks and whites.

The reason?

Dissatisfied with western medicines, most people are going to their roots, literally, and in the midst of a vicious HIV/AIDS pandemic coupled with a challenged economy, most are turning to nature’s gifts.

And these medicinal herbs often outstrip their sophisticated western or modern counterparts in terms of everyday use, adaptability, affordability and, in some cases are efficacy.

For decades, traditional medicines have been despised and stigmatised, especially in Africa, through colonialism with the result that some communities have considered imported medicines superior to traditional and indigenous herbs in terms of safety and efficacy.

Some people have come to the extent of equating traditional medicinal herbs with backwardness, ignorance and such diabolical practices as witchcraft and ritual killing.

And this attitude has resulted in tremendous neglect of local herbs and has damaged efforts to impose the local genetic potential of (local) traditional medicine.

However, times are changing and as Helen Charters, a medical doctor who manufactures and runs a herbal centre in Harare, says:”A lot of the indigenous herbs have not been studied enough – the problem being safety and not necessarily efficacy.”

Growing at least 10% of the around 120 herbs they manufacture, package and sell, Charters says they add value to the herbs by assisting in research.

Traditional herbs are believed to be effective and with reputations relying on centuries of ancient folklore, and people are returning to the abundant flora of the tropics.

Some developing countries are even making efforts to project and preserve their knowledge of traditional herbs by improving conditions in research and productivity thus helping reduce dependence or reliance on western drugs.

Traditional medicine has proved notably in India and China, it can help treat several ailments, sickness and diseases and could even take the international drugs market by storm as more people, especially in this age of immune-weakening diseases, are looking more towards natural holistic forms of treatment.

Anne Hutchings, a retired botanist, researcher and author who has worked at the University of Kwa-Zulu-Natal, believes herbs are becoming medicines of first choice.

Speaking on the sidelines of a Herbs and Health Forum in Harare recently, Hutchings said: “Although traditional medicinal practice has never been totally lost in South Africa, we can learn a lot from Zimbabwe.”

“And we have similar plants and we need to standardize their use,” says Hutchings, who spent nine years studying and researching on Zulu herbal medicines and has also written a book on the subject.

Edwin Muguti, a western-trained surgeon and Zimbabwe’s Deputy Minister of Health and Child Welfare, observes that although traditional medicine has existed for much longer and had gone dormant, its comeback is gathering momentum – across the world including Southern Africa.

“There is much enthusiasm on how countries can improve perceptions on traditional medicines compared to allopathic medicine,” he says.

And Zimbabwe, he notes, is at the forefront of promoting the production and use of these medicines, with political commitment now more visible – “as can be discerned by activity at ministry level”.

Dr Muguti, a passionate protagonist of herbal medicine himself, while emphasising his country is doing everything possible to promote use of alternative medicine and urging that the momentum be maintained, expresses consensus on quality control measures and the traditional medicinal practitioners.

“We want to see safe, effective and well researched products that match international standards,” stresses Muguti, who has wide experience in the country’s major hospitals and has lectured at the University of Zimbabwe’s medical school.

“We are not lost to the recommendations of the World Health Organisation (WHO) policies and are utilizing generic tools – not from anywhere but from WHO and according to international standards and efficacy,” he adds.

And during a recent launch of the process of identifying a Traditional Medicine Policy and Code of Ethics for Zimbabwe in the capital, Dr Stanley Midzi, a director in diseases control in the health ministry, reiterated the need for stakeholders to come up with recognized and utilised standardised herbal formulations in managing both human and livestock health.

“We want to safeguard our clients – not stifle growth of traditional medical practitioners – although we are worried about reports of unethical practices from quakes, child abusers and ritual murders, among others,” he said.

WHO recent reports say over 80% of populations in Africa are dependent on traditional medicine for primary care, with diseases and everyday ailments using herbs that have been identified through a slow process of learning stretching over thousands of years.

And the world health body adds that, in global terms, herbal medicine is worth over US$70 billion, representing 25% of then overall drugs market.

But for the traditional medicine sector to be fully developed, herbal medicinal practitioners must be recognized, professionally and legally protected.

“We are happy that at last the government is now getting serious in creating an enabling environment for us,” says David Ngwenya, a traditional practitioner of

37 years’ standing, from Matabeleland South province, who is also in the Ministry of Health’s traditional medicine committee.

International drug manufacturing companies are wary of herbal and traditional medicines, believing they might affect the market of conventional western drugs.

Meanwhile, several organizations in the country, with Linkage Trust and the Centre at the forefront, are busy promoting use of medicinal plants and herbs.

With a network running across the country, Stella Greenway, projects coordinator of Linkage Trust, says there is a need for capacity building among medicinal herbal practitioners and communities on the efficacy of traditional medicine.

In pursuit of efforts in that direction, the two organizations, in collaboration with consultants and experts from South Africa and the United Kingdom, have published a basic document as a preliminary contribution towards the safe and effective use of medicinal plants in Zimbabwe.

“This is part of an ongoing process involving evaluation, development, elaboration and consultation,” said Greenway.

And, observes Anna Brazier who coordinated the forum:

“Use of herbs has become almost a movement in the last couple of decades and even more-sore in the light of challenges brought about by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, food insecurity and issues of nutrition.”

Andrews Chevalier, a medical herbalist who has been practicing for the past 20 years and was involved in the setting up of

the Bachelor of Science in Herbal Medicine

at the University of Middlesex, UK, says he mantra used n traditional medicine in Europe that: “Quality, Safety and Efficacy” sums it all up.

“There are differences (between allopathic medicines and herbal medicines), but after all, they are all medicines!” he says.

And appreciating the role of non-governmental organisations such as The Centre, Linkage Trust, International Development Enterprises, Kileel (UK) and United Nations agencies like the Food and Agricultural Organisation, Brazier concludes by concurring with Chevalier on the need to get out of the straight jacket that stifles research.

December 2006
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