Muti passes scientific tests

Craig Bishop

While Western medicine grapples with alternative treatments for people, a Fort Hare University researcher is determined to put to rest the myth that traditional forms of healing are outdated or inefficient - for animals. For the past three years he has been studying the ways in which plants can be used to treat diseases in livestock.

Ugandan-born Dr Patrick Masika is currently working in the field of reproductive physiology, studying the cutting edge of Western science, including artificial insemination and embryonic transfer.

“My interest in the use of traditional methods in the healing of livestock is more of a hobby, a personal project I can investigate while doing my duties for Fort Hare.”

Masika explains as a young man he had always had an inquisitive mind and while he was exposed to conventional forms of medicine, his curiosity about traditional medicine was aroused by his field work experiences in rural Ciskei.

While he was researching farm systems in the Keiskammahoek Valley, northern rural Ciskei, in 1993, the residents of Upper Gxulu village kept referring to a certain medicine man in the village who was having remarkable success in treating sick animals.
The man charged R10 for a bottle of medicine, and the villagers reported successful treatments.

“I had to find out what they were all on about,” Masika enthused, “and to this end I decided to see if they were just dreaming, or if there was something a little more important going on in this village.”

Accompanying the herbalist deep into the bush, Masika experienced first-hand the bewildering diversity of Eastern Cape plant life.

The herbalist explained the Xhosa names, the use and the plant parts that are necessary in the preparation of the medicine.

The traditional art of healing is often a closely guarded secret handed down from father to son, but changing times have led to medicine men becoming far more open about their craft. The herbalist told Masika that his children had been drawn to the city lights and had no interest in learning his art.

“On the whole, the younger generation are interested in working in the bigger cities, like Johannesburg,” he said.

Masika points out that, usually, training in the art of healing was imparted to those in the community with a certain form of gift,

“This skill comes from the spiritual knowledge of the ancestors, and often it can be accessed through a dream. Scientists may say that this is nonsense but then, if so, what should be done to assist those people to use their resources to maximum efficiency? It is not useless, there is something definitely here.

“I would really like to prove some rationale for what they are practising,” he said.

Masika had a preliminary breakthrough after he analysed herbal and plant extracts to see if there was any scientific justification for the belief in their efficacy.

Samples of the bark of the Salix Capensis plant, or umNcunube, were boiled and sent to Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute in Pretoria. Results of the analysis showed certain of the protozoa of the tick-borne disease, babesiosis, were being destroyed, proving the remedy does work.

The next step, says Masika, is to refine the extraction process, and to find the right methodology.

`There are well laid-out methods for the drying and extraction of medicinal components, such as using different solvents to analyse the effective active ingredients of the plants and herbs.”

Masika says his commitments at Fort Hare and lack of funding are the only things preventing him from taking this project on full time.

“I would love to be able to travel into the remote areas and spend time with sangomas learning about their knowledge and paying them for their input.”

“It is worth it,” he stresses. “The value of the plants as natural sources for western medicine is huge. Through biochemical analysis of the active ingredients, scientists will be able to synthesise the effective components.”

Conventional medicine can then target the areas in which the herbalists fail through pharmacology and toxicology investigations. This will help guide the healers in administering doses that are not too strong or too weak.

Researchers at the Institute for Natural Resources in KwaZulu-Natal estimate that in that province alone there are some 20 000 people at any one time gathering plants or animals for use in the traditional medicine industry. Every year some 1 500 tons of plant material, the equivalent of 110 trucks each capable of carrying 40 tons, is sold in the medicine markets on the streets of Durban alone.

“Our figures show that plant collectors who supply traditional practitioners sell plants worth R60-million a year, about one- third of the maize crop for KwaZulu-Natal. The dispensed value of the medicines made from these plants is estimated at about R500-million a year for the province. If you extrapolate these figures to the whole of South Africa, the traditional medicine industry could be generating up to R2,3- billion,” says INR consultant Miles Mander.

Masika estimates that at least 75% of rural communities rely on traditional healing for livestock and that there are many reasons why these knowledge systems prevail.

Traditional medicines are inexpensive; there is a lack of knowledge about conventional medicine and a corresponding view that herbal medicines are more effective; the herbalists are present in the villages day and night, as compared to the visiting vets who are often not there when needed; there are huge distances between rural communities and towns where medicines can be bought; and traditional medicines are part of the belief system that communities grew up with.

“You cannot teach an old dog new tricks,” one livestock owner explained.

While the medical and veterinary fraternity debate the issue, time is not on the side of these traditional healers.

Herbalists complain that more and more people are coming to see traditional medicine as “unprogressive” or “backward”. Children are not interested.

In addition to this, Masika discovered that the herbalists are recruiting inexperienced people to gather herbs and plant parts, who often ruin them. A common complaint is that the plants are scarred, and when the bark of a tree or plant is needed in small quantities, the gatherers often remove too much, damaging the growth of the plant and preventing future harvesters from reaping a similarly high yield.

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