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Sunday, 7 November, 1999, 14:53 GMT
Zambia's amazing potato cure
In the minds of many Zambians the African potato is a wonder-cure

By Ishbel Matheson

I had a rather nasty cold when I went up to the Tuesday vegetable market in Lusaka. This is a wonderful, weekly event where sellers spread out a colourful array of local produce on the ground.

Red tomatoes and chilies gleaming in the sun, deep bags full of beans and nuts, fragile herbs wilting in the heat. Today, though, I was looking for something a little different.

"Have you seen any African potatoes?" I asked the small boy who ran up, and offered to carry my bag. He led me off to a corner of the market, where one trader had laid out a selection of very, curious looking vegetables.

They were large, the size of a small melon, ridged, with tough hairs sprouting on the outer-skin, and shaped like a honey-bee hive.

Good for you

"So this is the amazing African potato," I asked the trader Antony Lombe, a small man who didn't have the immediate appearance of a charlatan. He nodded earnestly.

"It is good for you," he said. "It can help with almost any ailment including HIV/Aids."

"But can it cure you?" I asked.

He replied cautiously: I have had some customers, who come back, saying that it has."

A small crowd gathered, listening to our conversation. A man shouldered himself to the front of it.

"I believe in the African potato," he told me. "I had some venereal diseases, and after three weeks of taking African potato, I was completely cured."

I sneezed and blew my nose. "Maybe even the African potato can help you," he said to the laughter of the crowd.

Special qualities

One in four urbanites is affected by HIV/Aids
When I came back to Zambia after three weeks holiday, the craze was in full swing. There had been a few articles in the press before I went away, but it was an international Aids summit in Lusaka, which brought the reputation of the tuber to wider attention.

The plant is only grown in Mkushi, in the north of the country. Traditional healers there, who use it to treat a range of illnesses, have long known of its special qualities.

In the minds of many Zambians - both educated and uneducated - this is a wonder-spud. Opening my newspaper the other day, I found an irate letter to the editor.

"Why are Zambian scientists quiet over the African potato?" one reader demanded.

"Are we Zambians waiting for the Western world to 'steal' our African potato and claim it's a Western potato?"

A homegrown alternative

The popularity of the vegetable is hardly surprising. Most Zambians are too poor to afford any kind of medication, and when it comes to HIV/Aids, people are willing to try anything.

The disease affects an estimated one in four people in urban areas, and with no prospect of treatment with the kind of expensive drugs available in Western nations, any homegrown alternative is eagerly received.

A doctor friend has seen lots of quack remedies, but she finds the African potato particularly intriguing.

Every day she walks past vendors, selling them, outside the main gate of the city's hospital. "They wait for the weakest and most sickly looking patients to come out," she says, "and then they try to flog them African potatoes."

Interested in the sales pitch, she investigated a study, which had been done in South Africa. This showed that while some special chemicals in the vegetable could help boost the immune system, you would have to eat kilos and kilos of the stuff to see any real effect.

Better off with a good meal

To be honest - said my doctor friend - people would be better off having a good, nutritious meal. And - she said emphatically - it is not a cure for Aids.

Back in the Tuesday market, I buy my knobbly shaped vegetable to take home. Trader Antony Lombe tells me as gravely as any pharmacist, that I must peel it, boil it in water, and then drink the water, three times a day, to get rid of my cold.

However, someone else informs me that it takes 15 years for an African potato to grow to maturity, so I give my purchase to a friend, who agrees to plant it out in her garden.

The next day she tells me her servants took the tuber with alacrity. The vegetable I bought is not apparently an authentic African potato, but something completely different. It's a plant well known for its aphrodisiac qualities.

Serves me right for thinking I had found a cure for the common cold.


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See also:
04 Oct 99 |  Africa
Africa on the Aids frontline
15 Sep 99 |  Africa
Aids: World's 'worst undeclared war'
14 Sep 99 |  Africa
Battle against Aids 'will be slow'

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