Sexual performance is the litmus test for virility, especially amongst Nigerian men, and the ‘morning wood’ serves as reassurance. The early-morning erection is perhaps the most important indicator that a man has no erectile problems. Many men grow worried the moment their ‘morning wood’ is absent. Certain psychiatric medication can cause erectile problems and male patients may decide to stop taking such medication as a result.

In South Western Nigeria (Lagos, to be precise), several myths are attached to the male erection – and the absence of it. It is often said that a high intake of sugar, backache (usually caused by prolonged sitting and long-distance driving) or eating a lot of junk food – all imports of a Western lifestyle – are the major culprits in erectile dysfunction and sexual non-performance in men. It is believed that women who indulge in consuming sweet treats may also suffer repercussions, such as menstrual pain, black menses and a reduced libido.

Read: Traditional medicine in a modern world

Enter the herb-sellers who comb the streets of Lagos on foot, carrying their wares on their heads. They hardly need to be introduced or to announce their products. They are popular and well-patronised by members of their communities, especially by artisans such as tailor, barbers, traders, drivers, auto-mechanics and masons and even by the occasional middle-class man. These herb-sellers pride themselves in running a mobile local pharmacy that can solve every ailment, from a weak erection to piles to infertility.

Sobotone and Ale – what is the difference?

In 2016, BattaBox did an exclusive feature on Madam Sobotone, a seller of aphrodisiac herbs, which went viral. What is amusing about this interview is the unabashed way in which she spoke in Yoruba about the genitals. Her opinion of the sexual act is also hilarious: She said the penis was the ‘car wash’ for the vagina. Her onomatopoeic names for her herbal products, for example Porkiriyon, an elixir for premature ejaculation, and Mawoboniran and Sobotone, both for enhanced erections, were quite descriptive. Other products included Magnet, Adodun, Finger Hay and Olioli for female users seeking to improve their sexual experiences or to make their partners find them sexually irresistible.

These herb-sellers pride themselves in running a local and mobile pharmacy that can solve diverse ailments.

Before dispensing her products, Madam Sobotone listens to her buyer’s complaints. She then concocts a cocktail from her array of bottled herbs and hands the buyer an elixir. These herbs often taste bitter but, for the user, a temporary bitter aftertaste is better than a foiled sexual romp or a weak erection. Madam Sobotone has spent 10 years dispensing this know-how, which she learnt from her grandmother and rebranded with new names to attract attention. She admits that her herbs are not all that different from existing ones like Ale, Afato, Opa Eyin and Agbo Jedi, which are water or alcohol-based herbal potions popular in the south-west of Nigeria.

 

Benefit vs Risk

Local herbs are widely used in Nigeria and traditional medical practitioners have a huge following. Unlike orthodox medicines, there are no restrictions on the advertisement of traditional medicines to the general public, and these practitioners generate widespread publicity through radio jingles, community outreach and trade fairs.

Traditional herbs are easily available and pocket friendly, costing less than a dollar. In addition, there is no need to consult a doctor to obtain a prescription. For users, these cost factors add to a sense of pride and identity, given that these products come from the ancient civilisation of their forefathers, which precedes the appearance and widespread acceptance of the colonial masters and their way of doing things. Users also testify that these local herbs work. Many of these herbs induce diarrhoea, which is often taken as a sign of impurities being purged from the body.

Many of these herbs induce diarrhoea, which is often taken as a sign of impurities being purged from the body

Read: Traditional African medicine and the threat of biopiracy

A Doctor’s Caveat

There are reports from users that these local herbs work. Unfortunately, anecdotal evidence ranks lowest in the hierarchy of scientific evidence. The exact ingredients in these herbs are not known and the quantities required for objective response are also not available. In addition, what these herbs do to the body in both the short and long term is still a mystery. However, several scientific studies in Nigeria have linked herbal remedies to kidney and liver failure.

There is more room for scientific research on these herbs to explore their effects, both beneficial and harmful, but this will require the collaborative effort of both scientists and herb-sellers. For now, orthodox medicine and local herbs exist in their own separate spaces, each professing its abilities. Clearly, the local herb sellers are the loudest voice in the room.