Herbal Medicine: Witchcraft or Effective Healthcare?

Published on 18th December 2018

Herbal medicine is one of the most misunderstood medical disciplines. Yet, it is gaining popularity among Kenyans as they realize its unique benefits.

The mention of herbal medicine invokes mixed feeling among Kenyans citizenry. Some, particularly the elite and “educated”, condemn and dismiss it as primitive and nothing but witchcraft. Others particularly the common people who are the majority embrace it as a reliable and effective traditional therapy. The third group is confused and oscillates between herbal medicine and conventional medicine and use both systems simultaneously for their health problems albeit secretly.

What then is herbal medicine?

Herbal medicine or phytomedicine is the oldest form of traditional medicine and its misty origins predate humanity. Herbal medicine, as the name implies, is the study and application of the therapeutic effects of the plant materials within a holistic context. I mean holistic because some of the materials used may not necessarily be the plant in origin but such other animal products like honey and its by-products, minerals, milk and blood.

Plants have throughout the ages played a prominent role in the maintenance and management of health. According to the earliest records available, herbal medicine was initially linked with magic and was repeatedly viewed as a gift from the gods. Later on, as the concept of disease changed, it was felt that diseases were caused by natural causes rather than intrusion of evil spirits and attempts were made to remove the magical element from the practice of herbal medicine.

In Kenya before 1925, almost 99% of the population relied on herbal and other forms of traditional medicine practices. 1925, the infamous Witchcraft Act Cap 67 was enacted which outlawed the practice of traditional medicine terming it witchcraft and threatened to have anybody caught practising the same to be jailed. Since then, until recently, the practice of herbal and other traditional medicines has been a game of hiding and seek between the practitioners and the powers that be. Even today, we the practitioners, do so illegally because the Witchcraft Act has never been repealed and no new Act of

Parliament has been enacted to govern and control herbal medicine. It will not be surprising if the government woke up one day and arrested all of us and dumped us into prisons. Currently, we are tolerated but not accepted. At present herbalists and other alternative medicine practitioners treat about 80% of the patients in the rural areas where primary health care is wanting and inaccessible. Millions who live there cannot afford the modern healthcare services even if they may be available. This state of health inertia means that traditional medical practice and its utilization is not properly regulated, controlled and documented and therefore remains unclear to the powers that be in terms of its practice, the efficacy, effectiveness and safety. This has made policymakers reluctant to direct policies and budget allocations in favour of traditional medicine or even to make contributions to its development.

The few half-baked measures which are being taken are done in total exclusion of the herbalists who are the main stakeholders, by people who are ignorant of traditional medicine that they do not know the difference between herbal medicine, spiritualists or witchcraft. It is, therefore, a very sad affair to see a profession handling such a big percentage of patients sidelined from the national healthcare delivery system both financially and officially.

Plants have innate antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal substances for their own protection. They also have substances, which are known to boost the immune system and of course provide optimum nutrition. These are the ones herbalists use as curative agents, immune boosters and food supplements. Attempts have been made to isolate these active principles to make more convenient dosages. But as it has always been observed phytomedicines seem to work better when used as whole plants, or their morphological parts.

Herbal medicines are therefore prepared from plants often using the leaves, stems, roots, barks, buds, fruits, as well as flowers. Many plants can be used in their natural forms or they can be refined into tinctures, infusions, and decoctions or into advanced forms such as tablets, powders, capsules and injections. Many herbs have several active compounds, which interact with one another to produce the desired therapeutic effect.

A herbal medicine may contain all the compounds found in a plant or plants or just one of the isolated compounds which have been successfully extracted. It is very encouraging when research shows that these timeworn therapeutic techniques are often very effective approaches to the diseases of the present day. The other day professor Julius Mwangi of the University of Nairobi delivered his inaugural lecture on “Herbal medicines, Do they really work”? in which he gave very many cases validating the potency, efficacy and safety of herbal medicine. The scientists are now discovering what the herbalists have always known for more than 2000 years!

There are currently two forms of herbalism today; the traditional herbal practice and the modern medical herbal practice. In the latter, the best modern features are now incorporated in the diagnosis and interpretation of diseased conditions. As a medical herbalist, you must be familiar with allopathic (read chemical) approaches in order to achieve meaningful discussion with other members of the national healthcare. Herbal medicines are actually very powerful curative agents and are therefore a coherent and effective alternative to orthodox medical practice. Better still, they can be used together with conventional medicine in a controlled manner to reinforce one another.

Herbalists have been unfairly accused by their medical counterparts as being ignorant of the aetiologies of diseases. But it is important to note that sometimes a thorough knowledge of a disease say TB, is not a sine qua non. Herbalists just like their conventional medicine counterparts are able to deal effectively with TB or HIV infection from first principles and intuition gained from long-term clinical experience. This approach coupled with the accompanying dietary and lifestyle advice has a significant contribution to the wellbeing of the patient.

Conventional doctors are dismissive of claims by herbal and alternative practitioners as largely cures by way of the placebo effect. The name placebo is a Latin word meaning “I shall please” and refers to any substance which is medically ineffectual for treatment of a disease intended to deceive the patient and may cause a perceived or actual improvement in a medical condition. It would be good at this juncture to remind them that herbal and alternative medicines are known to work in animals which have no intuition capability or even patients in a coma that cannot benefit from intuition.

In the medical profession, prejudices die hard. Most conventional medical doctors by and large prefer to continue believing in their time-honoured methods rather than trying out something they have not learnt in the medical school. They are mesmerized by the faith and trust of their patients and the society at large and therefore are tempted to play God. This naturally gives them an unreasonable sense of pride and arrogance, making them hostile to anybody, any science or any practice that would challenge their elevated position.  

A more self-reliant attitude and approach towards our health and wellbeing must be encouraged. People must participate actively in their health. This is easy to advocate particularly for people fortunate enough to have access and afford modern medicine. But for the weak, poor and the dispossessed, it is afar crying. It, therefore, becomes obvious why the use of traditional medicine in its environmental and social milieu becomes an important factor not only for scientific interest but principally as one of survival and hope for millions of people.

Indeed it will prove to be the chief source of affordable, effective and accepted healthcare for all particularly the disadvantaged. It is more than timely to have a comprehensive review of the traditional medicine. We must define its beneficial aspects-past, present and future and discuss the challenges to its becoming a better contributor and resource for human health as well as its potential to improve health systems in Kenya and Africa as a whole.

Br Dr Maina

Dr Maina Herbal Clinic.

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