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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 May, 2005, 07:01 GMT 08:01 UK
Trying to save Zimbabwe's healers
By Steve Vickers
BBC News, Harare

Although the value of some herbs used in traditional African medicine is becoming increasingly talked about around the world, there are fears that the level of knowledge of the art is dwindling on the continent.

Ambuya Jessie Muzhange
Only one of Ambuya Muzhange's eight children knows much about traditional medicine

As more and more Africans adopt urban lifestyles, the interest and enthusiasm for traditional medicine seems to be declining, and many now prefer the pills of Western medicine.

I accompanied Ambuya Jessie Muzhange, an expert herbalist, to a bushy area on the outskirts of Harare.

Digging for roots and searching for different plants that have medicinal properties is an arduous task, requiring a great deal of skill.

Ambuya Muzhange, in her 70s, picked out leaves, branches and roots that most of us would not have even noticed were there.

Eight of her children are still alive, and only one of them has a reasonable level of knowledge of traditional medicine.


The art is passed on by walking in the bush with an expert on an almost daily basis, and most of her children live in the cities and are too busy for this.

"I've helped people with so many different diseases - backaches, nosebleeds, fertility problems, STDs, cancer, and even men who can't perform well in bed," claims Ambuya Muzhange.

"Most of my children find traditional medicine confusing, because it can be very difficult to distinguish the plants and to know their different uses."

The biggest problem with traditional medicine is a lack of quality-control - it is hard to know who is a genuine herbalist who has studied the powers of local plants and who is a charlatan out to make a quick buck.

But many Zimbabweans do appreciate the benefits of traditional medicine, particularly as it is far cheaper than visiting the doctor.

Some western-trained medics appreciate that some herbs may have some benefit but evidence supporting traditional remedies is sparse and medical schools show no sign of incorporating the traditional approach to what they teach.


"The problem with traditional medicine is that there are no prescribed dosages," said Obey Mawire, a final year medical student in Harare.

"We don't know all of the side-effects, and it needs purification, but there could be new discoveries if we incorporate traditional with modern medicine."

Ambuya Jessie Muzhange
Ambuya Muzhange uses leaves and roots which most people would ignore
"But I don't see a situation where I'll be using traditional medicine when I become a general practitioner."

But in the Western world, there is a growing interest in traditional medicine from Africa and the Far East.

As well as being a psychotherapist, Geraldine Kocroft is a fully-fledged traditional healer or n'anga.

She is currently working on a book documenting the benefits of traditional medicine and does not sure the doubts of many western medics.

"It's absolutely priceless, it really works, and God has given it to us, but unfortunately I feel it's a slowly dying art," she said.

"We're losing certain aspects of it, although we might gain some more."

Critics, of course, say that traditional medicine is dying out because there are so many conmen around and there is not enough scientific proof that the cures are effective.

Another reason for the decline is that it can be a secretive art, and knowledge is often not passed between herbalists and traditional healers.

"People tend not to want to share, sometimes they feel that they've been exploited."

A high level of skill is certainly needed to use the traditional medicines that the continent has been blessed with.

Who knows what remedies are yet to be discovered, if the dying art can be kept alive?

Traditional Zimbabwean remedies for common ailments:

Coughs and colds

Take leaves from a guava tree and rub them by hand to bring out the juices.

Put in boiling water and add lemon peel for flavour.

Leave to stand for 30-40 minutes.

Drink half a glass of the warm mixture three to four times a day, 30 minutes before food.

Continue taking for one week, by which time the cough or cold should have gone.


Take dry elephant dung from the bush.

If a nosebleed begins or if you feel one is about to start, burn a teaspoon-sized piece of the dung.

Inhale the smoke, taking deep breaths.

Ear infection

Take three or four grains of fresh maize and pound them.

Put the crushed maize on a clean cloth or handkerchief, tie it, and squeeze hard until juice comes out.

Put two drops of the juice in the infected ear.

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