The Sunday News
Vincent Gono, Features Editor
WHEN sixteen year old Mncedisi Moyo (not real name) of Gomoza in Lupane was bitten by a snake after he stepped on it as he was leading yoked oxen on their way to the fields last month, he was not taken to a hospital.
His left leg just above the angle where he was bitten became dark with a double pierce-like mark that became more visible when shown to the light. He said he felt some numbness although he could walk without assistance.
The nearest medical centre — St Luke’s Hospital is not a walkable distance from Gomoza. But that he was not taken to a hospital was not because of the distance. They got the remedy from within the village.
“I never got to see the reptile, it was still dark. I just felt some coldness as I stepped on it. I was bare footed so I felt the softness that was followed by a quick prick-like bite on my left leg and as I struggled to stop the yoked oxen I was leading the snake slithered away in the fading darkness into a thicket. I told my father who was driving the oxen that I had stepped on a snake and got bitten. Our journey to the fields was cut short as we started running around looking for assistance,” he narrated.
Using the basic snake bite knowledge, his father got a tree bark and tied Mncedisi’s leg just above where he was bitten before he rushed him to Ndlovu’s homestead to seek assistance. Ndlovu is a senior citizen — an old villager with cotton tuft hair who has over the years acquired knowledge of traditional medicine that cures a lot of ailments.
On being told of what had befallen Mncedisi, Ndlovu went and checked the bitten leg and said with a grin that it was a cobra that had struck the young man’s leg.
In no time Ndlovu took his small hoe that he often uses for such errands and disappeared into the forest where he seemed to take forever to bring back some small roots and another that looked like a small sweet potato. Panting, looking tired, he complained that what used to be a herb in abundance and within easy access was now in short supply and he walked some distance to get it.
Kneeling down, he rubbed the sweet potato like item on the marks that he called “the teeth” and they became more visible.
He told Mncedisi’s father not to worry about taking him to hospital.
“He explained in simple detail what the poison does to the body and told of how the strong concoction that he prepared was going to deal with the venom. And for sure I was right by the end of the day although my mother was a little worried and wanted me to be taken to hospital which idea was shot down by father,” said the young man.
The assistance that Ndlovu gave to the young man gives credence to the revelations by the World Health Organization (WHO) that an estimated 80% of the population of developing countries rely on traditional medicines, mostly plant drugs, for their primary health care needs.
Research has shown that demand for medicinal plants is increasing in both developing and developed countries, and surprisingly, the bulk of the material traded is still from wild harvested sources on forest lands and only a very small number of species are cultivated.
The expanding trade in medicinal plants however, has serious implications on the survival of several plant species, with many under serious threat to become extinct.
Musimboti Traditional Science and Technology Institute’s renowned director and herbalist in Bulawayo Mr Morgan Zimunya said it was true that populations in developing and developed countries rely on traditional medicine. He said even powerhouses such as India and China were known for advancing policies that encourage the use of traditional medicine.
Mr Zimunya said through traditional medicine he, like Ndlovu of Lupane could cure snake bites, sugar diabetic, intestinal upsets, headaches, high blood pressure, kidneys, cancer and a lot of sexually transmitted diseases, genital warts, skin diseases including erectile dysfunction.
He however, said he doesn’t believe in traditional medicine to enlarge manhood as claimed by others. Mr Zimunya said it was absurd for anyone to suggest that traditional medicine does not work as it was used before the advent of modern medicine.
He however, posited that there was a need for a deliberate policy as was in the communities to protect the harvesting of medicines in order to protect medicinal tree species that are normally indigenous and wild.
“I grow some of the herbs although I harvest some of the medicine from wild trees. The idea is to know which tree cures what and the method to harvest. You will find out that our elders knew how to protect the trees and would prescribe that one should get the tree bark from the east and the west simply to ensure that the tree was not ringed as it would kill the tree. That was a conservation strategy and it made sure medicine tree species were protected,” said Mr Zimunya.
Besides, communities knew where to go for traditional medicine and those that were into the art of traditional medicine knew the herbs and trees and knew how to protect them from extinction.
“These traditional medicines were not produced and sold on commercial basis but now there is need to grow some of the trees because we are now into mass production, even exporting some to other countries. I grow part of my medicinal trees and herbs on plots, farms and was even outgrowing. I then package them into capsules, eye drops, cough syrups, tea leaves and ointments at a proper industrial and pharmaceutical level,” he said.
He said there was need to raise awareness on medicinal plants as an important forest resource to help ensure that medicinal plants were adequately included in forest conservation and utilization programmes.
Forest conservationist and environmentalist Mr Barnabas Mawire weighed in saying medicinal plants link together the physical environments of local communities and their use of plants in promoting and maintaining their health.
He however, said prospects for the future supply of medicinal plants impact the long term viability of traditional health systems if no deliberate steps were taken to promote sustainable use of the plants that were usually non-wood.
Mr Mawire emphasised on the training of practitioners.
“Training of practitioners and preservation of traditional ecological and medical knowledge lie at the core of future prospects for ancient traditions. In many traditional societies, medicinal plants play a very important role in providing everyday health care to the majority of the population of most developing countries.
“In recent years, there has been a growth of interest in traditional medicine, in part driven by the interest in complementary medicine in industrial countries and in part resulting from the interests of the international pharmaceutical industry. Demand for herbal medicines has led to significant changes in traditional patterns of medicinal plant harvesting and has placed some plant species under threat,” said Mr Mawire.
He said it was the associated pressure that this demand was placing on wild sources of plants that has to be dealt with through plantations and awareness campaigns.
He said herbalists now report having to walk increasingly greater distances for herbs that once grew almost outside their door.
“As habitats for plants disappear and over-harvesting for commercial uses reduces stocks of wild medicinal plant material, there is a corresponding drop in the availability of the plants used as the first and last resort for health care by many rural populations,” added Mr Mawire.
He urged the Government to work with all stakeholders including traditional leaders to ensure protection of medicinal plants as a way of forest conservation and as both a mitigation and adaptation measure to climate change.