Mali's traditional healers unlock herbal cures

Bourama Soumaoro’s pharmacy looks much like any other, packets of pills in glass cabinets and jars of powder to fight everything from toothache to dysentery. But nowhere in the doctor’s small shop in Mali’s capital Bamako is there a chemically manufactured drug.

Soumaoro’s remedies are made exclusively from ground-up local plants, the exact mixture based on knowledge passed down through the generations by traditional village healers.

“Culturally, we’re born into traditional medicine rather than Western medicine. From being babies, our mothers take us to traditional healers to clean us and cure us with plants,” Soumaoro told Reuters.

“The story of modern medicine is foreign to our culture.”

The World Health Organisation estimates about 80% of Africans rely on traditional medicine from the cradle to the grave. There is just one conventional doctor per 25 000 people compared to a traditional healer for every 200 in some areas.

Traditional knowledge is often extremely localised. A village in Mali’s south-eastern Sikasso region is said to be the only one in the country to possess an anti-venom powder to treat snake bites, a cure which Mali’s Association of Traditional Healers says is recognised by medical doctors.

One bush used to treat malaria by Mali’s Dogon people, who live in mud-brick villages nestled along the Bandiagara escarpment near Burkina Faso, is found only within 100km of their cliff dwellings, scientists say.

“Malaria is one of the most common illnesses in Mali and modern medicine has so far proved to be ineffective [in curing it],” said Soumaoro. “Traditional medicine at least finds solutions to relieve the symptoms.”

Example to Africa

Mali’s government is one of few in Africa to formally recognise the benefits of traditional healers. Its scientists test the healers’ methods and give them a seal of approval.

“This system is unique in Africa and is said by many to be a model for the rest of the developing countries that rely on traditional medicine,” said Berit Smestad Paulsen, a professor in the School of Pharmacy at the University of Oslo, Norway.

“I do not think [traditional African medicine] is taken seriously enough ... this type of treatment can be just as good as ours in many cases,” said Paulsen, who has been working with Malian scientists for years on research into traditional cures.

Professor Drissa Diallo, head of the department of traditional medicine at Mali’s National Institute for Research into Public Health, has tried to build up trust with the traditional healers, persuading them that the aim of the research is to preserve and improve their practices.

“The traditional healer is viewed in the community as highly competent. When we do research like this, we are working for them,” he said, dressed in a white lab coat and standing over dried leaves spread on his laboratory floor.

“We give the information we gather to the healer so he can improve what he is doing and produce what we call improved traditional medicine, approved and sold in pharmacies like regular drugs.”

Seven such traditional medicines are already on the national list of essential drugs and sold in shops like Soumaoro’s, packaged in gelatine capsules in small plastic bags marked with an expiry date, dosage instructions and an authorisation from the health ministry.

Such plant-based cures are cheaper to produce and sell, require no prescription and are more widely accepted than conventional medicine.

Colonial-era stigma

African medicine was often feared by the Europeans who colonised the continent. Some believed traditional cures were part of dangerous black magic ceremonies and, although the system continued to thrive, it was largely driven underground.

Traditional medicine still finds plenty of sceptics in the Western medical profession but has been making a comeback since the era of independence in the 1960s.

Diallo’s lab is packed with cabinets of dried roots, leaves and grains. It is just two years old, employs 60 people and was funded partly by the debt relief Mali has won in recent years.

His colleagues had carried out similar research in more basic facilities since 1968.

Although the lab is producing enough evidence to determine which plants have healing qualities, it is still some way off the clinical requirements that would be needed for Western drugmakers to use the findings, Oslo’s Paulsen said.

Just as colonisers feared African methods, so too many Malians view Western medicine with suspicion, regarding it as overpriced and not tailored to curing local ailments which their ancestors have been treating for generations.

“Modern medicine has come at us like something dictated from outside,” said Soumaoro. “And we don’t like being dictated to.” - Reuters

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