Medicine in Africa has traditional roots, which have always been inextricably linked to plants. African medicinal plants were essentially the backbone of medicine and, in truth, the healing components in these plants are usually synthesised by Western medicine. Over the centuries, traditional medicine has been demonised in favour of Western medicine, which was glorified as the most effective alternative. This glorification is closely tied to religion since, in traditional African societies, medicine men and women also served a spiritual role.
As a result of this demonisation, African medicinal plants and medicine have become the domain of the “uneducated” and the poor. Con artists take advantage of this, enabled by the neglect faced by this sector of medicine. It is often unregulated, which makes seeking low-cost health a dangerous affair. In addition, African medicinal plants are slowly being divorced from traditional medicine by con artists, which is leading to further neglect.
There is little to no regulation of the practice of traditional medicine, which allows for charlatans to take advantage of patients.
During colonial times in Kenya, the 1910 Medical Practitioners and Dentists Ordinance was created to help delineate Western medicine from traditional medicine. There was little tolerance for traditional medicine. This attitude was not limited to the colonial era, however. Post-independence attitudes viewed native doctors and practices as regressive, with no positive contribution to make to the new Kenya. During Jomo Kenyatta’s time in office, he described traditional healers as “common cheats”.
Even now, it continues to shape the law and attitudes to medicine, bolstered by the Christian disdain for native practices. Although the Alma-Ata Declaration of 1978, the first international declaration underlining the importance of primary health care, did soften attitudes towards traditional medicine, there is still an underlying disapproval of its use. Currently, the medical fraternity is mainly concerned over possible interactions between conventional and traditional treatment, citing negative interactions and ineffective, sometimes dangerous, outcomes.
The return of tradition
It is curious to note, however, given the current state of healthcare in Kenya, that traditional medicine has become the more sought-after option. It is often practiced in addition to Western medicine, usually by people who cannot afford a full Western-style treatment. The delineation of the two kinds of medicines has, however, created a path for the resurgence of African medicinal plants. There are now two avenues through which they are used: as ground powders and pills (used as vitamins and additions for general health care) and in their natural state (straight from the ground or made into liquid or paste). The former option serves to provide a more modern approach to traditional medicine, which is often more expensive to produce.
Traditional herb-based treatments face several challenges, not least of which is regulation. As it stands, there is little to no regulation of the practice of traditional medicine, which allows for charlatans to take advantage of patients. Additionally, the procedure for using traditional medicinal plants in healing is often not precise and their storage and preservation leave much to be desired. Because of the secrecy that is often involved in treatment of this kind, there is a lot of room for misdiagnosis, expired medication, bacteria build-up and associated gaps in the process. On top of this, many traditional treatments are used together with Western treatments, which can cause interactions and lead to complications for the patient.
There is minimal legislation that addresses the field of traditional medicine. The introduction of the 2017 Health Act did remedy this to some extent, but the results of this legislative act remain to be seen, as enforcement is still unresolved. Moreover, the sourcing of medicinal plants has yet to be properly legislated, as the Act itself focuses on disciplinary action and licensing. This neglect also leaves room for the theft of intellectual property, which is the case with many cultural items, such as the kiondo, the handwoven bag made from sisal with leather trim, which is indigenous to the Kikuyu and Kamba tribes of Kenya.
Even so, the future of traditional medicine and plants is not entirely lost. The Traditional Knowledge and Cultural expressions Act of 2016 has provided one direction in which we can expand and help regulate traditional knowledge. At least 70% of the current population still use traditional medicine, so the culture is not necessarily dying out soon. However, if there is to be any change in the current state of affairs, a more deliberate push towards a cultural and agricultural revolution must endure.