By Sharon Kavhu
BACK in the early 1990s, contracting HIV was an automatic death sentence for many in Zimbabwe.
The stigma attached to HIV forced many to take their secrets to the grave, the alternative would have resulted in alienation from their friends and family still struggling to understand a disease, which has gone on to become one of the biggest killers in the world, claiming 1.1 million lives just last year.
Then, as now, there was no cure for HIV. But what was not available then, which is available now, is life-saving drugs that can supress the virus and allow those with the disease to lead normal lives.
As others died in home-based care all around her, Jestina Kuziva Satambara, 51, managed to jump off the HIV death train – and she credits traditional herbs for keeping her alive until this day.
“Since 1996 when I tested HIV positive, I’ve been using different traditional herbs to boost my immune system. Traditional herbs have managed to suppress the HIV viral load in my system,” she says.
“The herbs have proved to be effective just as much as anti-retroviral drugs,” said Satambara, while carefully crushing sweet wormwood herb in a glass container at her home in Nyamahumba Village, a rural outpost in Nyanga, east Zimbabwe.
Satambara is one of the HIV patients to have pioneered the use of traditional herbs to treat HIV in Zimbabwe.
She is currently mentoring five other people living with HIV in taking traditional herbs in her village to supress the HIV virus and prevent opportunistic infections.
Some of the herbs she is using are drawn from a combination of sweet wormwood, Rosemary, Russian Comfrey, Moringa, tree bark cuts from 12 fruit trees, lemon grass and stinging nettle.
Satambara told The Southern Times: “I was pregnant when I tested HIV positive. My immune system had deteriorated and was prone to HIV-related infections.
“I had high blood pressure, depression, swollen legs, severe back ache, thrush, sore throat, ring worms and terrible headaches. There was hopelessness and everyone waited for my day because other HIV patients were dying in numbers.
“I was very sick and I never thought I would live to see this day. Back in 1996, there were no CD4 count machines to detect the number of body soldiers I had then but I bet at that time they had been decimated but somehow the herbs kicked in and here I am.”
She said her condition was worsened by the fact that she was still in denial, as she pondered about the future of her unborn baby should she deliver it with the virus.
Her husband had abandoned her too.
“It took me a while to accept my status, I was in denial because I knew I was faithful to my husband. Moreover, I was worried about my child and didn’t want him to contract the virus,” she continued.
She said she suddenly noticed some signs of recovery when she started using traditional herbs.
“An elder from the Roman Catholic Church, who is now late, was the one who advised me to take traditional herbs but at first I was sceptical. I had this mentality that traditional herbs are associated with witchcraft,” she recalls.
“But I started taking the herbs out of desperation without enough knowledge on the dosages. Surprisingly, it worked, my health started improving. The HIV-related infections were reduced while others were healed.
“The herbs miraculously worked effectively to prevent my unborn child from contracting the virus at a period when prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) methods, now taken for granted, were not available.
“I was consistently taking the herbs during pre- and post-natal care, especially sweet wormwood.”
She said even after birth, she gave her baby boy some herbal dosages. Today, her son is 19 years old and is HIV negative.
Satambare started attending traditional herbal training sessions, which were facilitated by a non-governmental organisation, Disease of Mutare Community Care Programme (DOMCCP) to advance her knowledge on herbs.
“We started training in 2000 beginning with learning about names, types of herbs that treat and heal specific health conditions. I also learnt about the dosages and the dangers of overdosing,” she explained.
“When ART was officially introduced in Zimbabwe, I was not initiated into the programme because my CD4 count was over 1,000 – which means I was in rude health. The WHO guidelines said those with a CD4 count of 250 or less should be placed under treatment.
“Sweet wormwood works effectively in cleansing all toxins and it is essential to take it first before other immune boosters such as moringa tree seeds, moringa oil, moringa bark and moringa roots.
“I used to have a huge garden full of these herbs but they have been affected by the drought. Here, we now travel 25km to the nearest source of water, I’m forced to keep most of the herbs in powder form.”
She said every now and then, she goes to Mutare, the nearest city, for kidney and liver check-ups and CD4 count tests to establish if the herbal dosages are not constraining her system.
However, she said health experts discourage the use of ART and herbs interchangeably.
According to DOMCCP, people living with HIV and on ART should adhere to their treatment and never mix with herbs. On the other hand, those on traditional herbs should also not mix or switch to ART.