Africa's Traditional Medicine Can Cure, With Touch of Magic, and Sometimes Kill


In an office crammed with jars and bottles, Congolese herbalist Charles M'Bemba sells a brown liquid reeking of distilled alcohol. He says it cures almost every known intestinal ailment.

"Tetra," according to M'Bemba's literature, can be used to treat gastritis, ulcers and diarrhea as well as migraine headaches, menstrual disorders, coughs, bronchitis, pleurisy and earache.

Hundreds of miles away Ivory Coast botanist Laurent Ake Assi is trying to identify a brown powder that police suspect may have killed someone who was treated by a practitioner of traditional African medicine.

A white envelope filled with bits of bark and powder and marked "to identify" has been in his office since January, but he remains baffled as to its contents.

"I grew up in a village where we only had traditional medicine and there were very few deaths," Ake said in an interview. "The real healers are very good--but there are a lot who don't know what they are doing."

Africa--which abounds in plants, many of them weeds, of proven medicinal value--is awash with people offering home-grown cures for virtually any ailment, from rashes to AIDS, often with a little magic thrown in.

Some treatments work, some don't.

Some can cause serious harm.

On a recent tour of the botanical gardens in Abidjan, Ivory Coast's principal city, Ake picked leaves and uprooted plants that he said could be used to stop coughing, treat cancer, prevent miscarriages and cure hypertension and insomnia.

In his herbarium, he has specimens of 18,000 plants collected from Ivory Coast and neighboring countries. Some have been studied for their medicinal properties and a handful are used to make Western medicines, but the properties of most remain unknown--except to traditional African healers.

"The belief in these plants runs deep," Ake said. "At the hospital the patients get Western medicines during the day, but at night when the patient's parents come in they bring the traditional medicines and hide them under the bed."

Secrecy, lack of research and the sheer variety of African plants are among the factors that make doctors trained in Western practices skeptical of traditional cures.

"Traditional healers have a way of thinking that is not really rational," said Dr. Prosper Djessou, an Abidjan doctor familiar with traditional medicine. "They may prescribe the same potion for several illnesses and if it works, fine, if it doesn't, it's not their problem."

But increasingly, the Western medical community is opening up to the potential of traditional medicine, especially in Africa, which needs a low-cost alternative to imported drugs.

The Geneva-based World Health Organization included traditional treatments as part of its global health program for the first time in 1984.

It is now supporting work to study them and how they can best be used, said Dr. Mamadou Koumare, chief of traditional medicine for WHO's Africa regional headquarters in Brazzaville, the Congolese capital.

"Despite its insufficiencies, this is a system of treatment already in place," Koumare said in an interview. "The two types of medicine (modern and traditional) can work hand in hand."

Some traditional practitioners are being accorded a new respectability, particularly in Congo, where they have been licensed since 1974.

M'Bemba is head of the National Assn. of Congolese Tradi-Practitioners and has a weekly radio show on the subject.

His own cure, Tetra, he said, is a mixture of plants--the properties of which "have been recognized by the Ministry of Health"--that has been used successfully for years in a neighborhood clinic.

"We can work together with regular doctors," he said. "I send people to them and they send patients to me."

M'Bemba is reluctant to say what Tetra contains, except that it is a concoction, invented by his father, of 10 local plants.

Ake opposes licensing traditional healers because it might lead to them being incorporated into the bastions of modern medicine, such as hospitals and clinics, where he thinks they do not belong.

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