Books for Nature Lovers
Muthi and Myths from the African Bush
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Review By: Sunday Independent - 14 December 2008

Africa is widely regarded as the ancestral tree of humankind and the cradle of the first signs of creative thinking and culture. One of the earliest manifestations of creative thinking is the medicinal plant grail.

It took millennia of trial and error by the continent's earliest medical practitioners, notably the Knoisan, to work out which plant was best suited to the treatment of any number of mind, body and spirit diseases. 

They achieved this because traditional people are highly observant of their surroundings and would draw many clues from nature. The colour or appearance of a plant, for example, often indicates its medicinal application. Hence the electric red African flame tree is used to treat inflamed "red hot" wounds. 

In African traditional medicine, the term "inflamed" immediately tells us that the affliction needs to be "extinguished" to soothe the pain. This might take time because pain is respected as part of the healing process. 

Traditional people also look to the animal world for medicinal clues. The story about the black-shouldered kite title Dicoma's Shadow, in the book, illustrates this: "Once upon a time in the heart of the Kalahari, a baby's cry was heard form inside 'n hut where a young San woman had given birth to her first child," the story begins. 

"Then one day, the baby suddenly fell. He began flailing his arms and crying incessantly. His mother recognized the symptoms and took him to the medicine woman. 

"The medicine woman looked at the baby and said in San: 'Ah, the shadow of the black-shouldered kite ahs fallen over your baby. We must act fast before its spirit invades him and he starts behaving like the bird. Already he is fluttering his arms. Soon he will start growing feathers'?" 

Van Wyk heard this tale from a San woman he met in the Kalahari some years back. He knew there had to be a scientific explanation for her story because most African tales contain encoded messages or important cultural information. 

The San woman knew exactly which plant the medicine woman in the story had used and pointed it out to him. It was Dicoma schinzii, which, sure enough, is effective in the treatment of fevers, especially in the treatment infants. The full significance of the story becomes apparent when you understand that, in African mythology, fever is often associated with birds because their body temperature (between 39 and 41?C) is much higher than ours (37,4?C). 

The tale about the black-shouldered kite was passed down between many generations as a way of educating parents how to identify this affliction in their children. 

It's a particularly meaningful tale because it also contains the seeds of holism widely associated with the traditional African world view, in which the distinction between plants, animals and humans is not defined; just as the distinction between the living world and the spiritual world is not defined. 

The term "holism" was coined by the world-renowned early 20th century South African statesman Jan Smuts, who felt a deep empathy for the continent's integrated world view where the physical, psychological and spiritual worlds are inherently connected. 

Nowhere is this more evident than in the muthi markets throughout Africa. One such market is the Faraday muthi market in downtown Johannesburg - on of Southern Africa's largest markets for traditional healers. 

Prescribing cures for every physical, spiritual and psychological ill, the traditional healers have mobile pharmacies spread out on the pavement featuring vast stores of roots, bulbs, barks and flowers. (Lots of animal parts too, but as this book is about medicinal plants, let's tick to these). 

It's a mystical, medieval site but no different really to early Western apothecaries, all of which were plant based. Medical doctors had to study botany as part of their degree back then, for every doctor had to prepare and prescribe drugs derived from medicinal plants. This is how the great Carl Linnaeus, who celebrated his 300th birthday in 2007, came to be crowned the King of Flowers. 

Linnaeus, who trained and practiced as a physician in Sweden, was the first person to devise a classification system for plants and animals; a system that 300 years later remains crucial to our present-day understanding of species and how they are interrelated. Linnaeus was also the first to define the human being as an animal, naming us Homo sapiens. 

Linnaeus is most certainly the father of botany worldwide, while Carl Thunberg, a Swedish botanist and doctor of medicine who studied under Linnaeus, is the father of botany in South Africa. Working his passage as a surgeon on a ship bound for Cape Town in 1771, he was the first person to describe and name hundreds of indigenous South African plants, many of them medicinal. 

He spent the next three years collecting plants throughout the Cape colony on his long, pioneering and often hazardous travels. During these travels he often wandered off the region's scantily beaten track, deep into the mountains. 

Thunberg wrote about the Khoi (one of the many clans of ancient Southern African people) who lived in the Cape and from whom he learnt a great deal as a doctor and botanist about the health and healing properties of many different indigenous Cape plants. As is the case with all the indigenous people of Africa, they had a cure for everything from wound healing to sexual performance. Sexual prowess and love play a big part in muthi, for these are the seeds of life. 

Muthi is sought by all those hoping to attract love, hoping to make themselves desirable to the one they love, hoping to stop their loved one from straying, hoping to reform abusive partners and hoping to enhance their sexual prowess. 

Kigelia Africana is one of several very sexy African trees used by healers to help young men enhance their manhood, to help woman grow bigger breasts and to treat both sexes for syphilis. Commonly called the sausage tree, its fruit closely resembles an outsize human penis, measuring up to half a metre. Its flower - a deep, erotic red - resembles the human females' genitals. 

"There is absolutely no question that shape and size counts when it comes to determining the medicinal properties of trees and plants, " explains Van Wyk. Little wonder that Kigelia Africana, which grows throughout tropical Africa, is widely sold in muthi markets across the continent. 

Nothing has been scientifically proven, but remarkable properties have been ascribed to the sausage tree, including strong antimicrobial (antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral) effects. It's a matter of time before science gets round to examining what the sangomas have sworn by for centuries. 

Tragically, thousands of African medicinal plants have never been identified, let alone subjected to clinical trials. This is changing as interest in the continent's vast botanical heritage accelerates, both from a medicinal and a conservation point of view. Be that as it may , whatever science may or may not discover, in all probability it won't alter our behaviour around love. 

"Whenever have human beings sought scientific proof in the name of love?" Van Wyk inquires. 

Quite the contrary, in the name of love, we'd sooner put our faith in anything we can swallow, pluck or conjure than rely on hard facts. In the name of love, we readily abandon scientific proof for love poppets or leopard orchids. 

One visit to any of the million of muthi markets on the continent confirms the love "fix" business is booming. It's not easy to get the traders to part with their "love secrets", but years of research into indigenous medicinal plants have led me to botanists and healers willing to share their knowledge of the wide range of love and potency plants. 

"Beware of the leopard orchid. It is a great African love charm," warns traditional doctor or inyanga, Proatas Cele, who cultivates this epiphyte in a tree outside his consulting rooms on the outskirts of Durban. "The flower is very beautiful but it is the cane and roots that carry the power. If you must chew them at midnight, then spit them out while saying the name of you love. From that moment that person will start to think about you." 

If you consider the required dose can be bought for a couple of pennies in anyone's currency, true love seems cheap at the price, but Protas shakes his head. 

"People are very foolish in love. They will do anything to get what they want. But you have to think very carefully about what you want, because you might get it and then not want what you get. In love I advise you to think about the person's character before chewing this plant." 

Protas follows the strict laws of the traditional healers' lodge. One of the laws is to revere the plants used in the medicines. This includes respecting the conservation of these plants and making sure that harvesting is done in such a way that it does not destroy the plant or denude the species. 

The extinction of indigenous medicinal plants and animals is a major modern problem. Many harvesters who supply the muthi markets are ignorant of the rituals and laws of conservation harvesting, which are central to the healing arts. 

Because of this, tens of thousands of the continent's medicinal plants have either been lost or are highly threatened through excessive harvesting, habitat encroachment and land mismanagement. 

Considering that 80 percent of people in Africa today continue to use traditional medicine, the medicinal plants are hard hit. As the plants disappear, so too does the knowledge about them. Unlike the healing knowledge of other ancient cultures, such as India and China, little of Africa's healing history is recorded. 

It is too late to mourn lost treasure, but consider how much must have been known by the healers of sub-Saharan Africa alone, where more than 2000 different languages are spoken, each with its own detailed medicinal plant legacy. 

In this book we have brought to light the deep history of a sample of the thousands of indigenous medicinal plants of Africa. 

The focus is towards Southern Africa because this region is a hot spot of cultural and botanical diversity. It is home to the world's most ancient culture - the Khoisan people. It also contains 10 percent of the world's plants on less than 2 percent of the Earth's total land surface.

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