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The traditional wisdom that has been passed from generation to generation will be the key to traditional medicine’s resurrection. Joe Makhafola sat with a practicing herbalist, Prudence Gotlhaloganyamang Matome (32), to get to the root of it…

The World Health Organization (WHO) has called on African governments to accord formal recognition to traditional medicine, create an enabling environment for its practice, and integrate the time-honoured system of medicine into their national health systems.

The call was made by the WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Ebrahim M. Samba, in a message on the occasion of the first African Traditional Medicine Day on August 31.

Dr Samba noted that for centuries, traditional medicine played a crucial role in combating multiple and complex conditions affecting Africans, and that because of its popularity, accessibility, and affordability, more than 80% of the people in the region continued to rely on it for their healthcare needs.

At a very young age, Prudence was far ahead of her time. Growing up with her grandmother, she always went to the fields to collect firewood, and she would always teach her different types of herbs and what they were used for. Little did she know that her lifetime educational legacy had begun.

Her late grandmother, Pherefere Esther Mmape Matome, who passed away in 2006, taught her a lot about indigenous herbs while she was still young.

“Growing up, we have always used indigenous medicine that our forefathers used to dig them up for us, and those herbs (mesunkwana) helped us and made us grow without any complications,” she says.

“I now sell different types of herbs, including homemade salts, which offer protection, aura cleansing, and others, depending on the challenges of your life.”

A public relations graduate born on the dusty streets of Chaneng Village of the Royal Bafokeng Nation, she is taking her calculated chances on the global market for traditional therapies that stood at more than $60 billion in 2000 and is steadily growing. She juggles between work and her calling as she works in the mining industry from 6am until the afternoon. The remainder of the time, her side traditional hustle is now becoming her mainstay, where she and her business partner, Bridget Raphata, can package and deliver products to clients.

“I have a client base of between 20 and 45 years old, but mostly young people come across life challenges that force them to consider the traditional route of cleansing their aura, like spiritual ties, bad luck, curses, protecting themselves from enemies, and attracting money. Life is difficult because we live in a world of evil and jealousy; it’s no longer safe,” she says.

From the onset, it’s been a hard sell with this sophisticated and modern generation, but pandemics like HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 have reminded us that traditional food can be the best cure for illnesses.

Prudence started smelling the coffee when her late grandmother was ill and subsequently passed away. “She started having health complications, and years later, I dreamt of her saying, ‘I have taught you a lot; just look around you and connect with nature; that’s where you will get a cure to help heal the sick’. It made me realise that she has left me with a lifetime inheritance that no one can take away from me and how blessed I am,” she says.

According to the World Health Organization, traditional medicine has a long history. It is the sum total of the knowledge, skills, and practices based on the theories, beliefs, and experiences indigenous to different cultures, whether explicable or not, used in the maintenance of health as well as in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement, or treatment of physical and mental illness.

Herbal medicines include herbs, herbal materials, herbal preparations, and finished herbal products that contain active ingredients, parts of plants, or other plant materials or combinations.

Going back to the basics

So where did we go wrong?

“We have lost our culture due to Western culture and market penetration. We lost our roots the minute we started subscribing to Western culture. As for modernity, it’s a way of making money, and the amount of money invested by pharmaceutical companies in marketing their products is unmatched. Marketing made modern medicine popular, and while most of their products are mixed with our indigenous herbs, that’s why their business has grown by leaps and bounds. It’s a booming business industry,” she says.

“We need to come together as traditional leaders in partnership with government to protect our nature, and our indigenous knowledge that we were taught by our forefathers passes on from generation to generation. I believe if we do and market or teach our children our roots, we can make it, which will make African medicine claim its place in history.”

The marketing of pharmaceuticals has created the impression that their products are superior and second-best to none.

Policy and regulation

South Africa is in the process of institutionalising the African traditional medicine in healthcare. The draft policy on traditional medicine is about to be finalised, marking an important epoch in the history of South Africa.

In February 2023, the Department of Health held a summit to further consult and make recommendations on the policy, among others, to establish the council that will regulate and formalise the sector, similar to the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) for medical doctors, that overseas code of conduct and ethics, as well as the Office of the Registrar, to license traditional healers.

“Remember, the quality of healthcare is available to all citizens for free, but on this one, it’s a choice. Not everyone believes in traditional herbs, and I normally require people who don’t have money to try some of my products for free. Once it helps, some come back to thank me, but others don’t. Normally we don’t require money, as our forefathers used to heal people without paying, but instead show a token of appreciation with a form of gift, sometimes money,” she says.

Hygiene

The safety, efficacy, and quality of the products of traditional medicine practice will always be a concern to the general public. Many herbal medicines are naturally strong and don’t have a dosage.

“I highly recommend following the instructions given by the herbalist; we know that the stronger the herb, some of the herbs are boiled and some are chewed, which contributes to the purity of the herbs,” she says.

On stigmatisation due to poor perceptions and attitudes, she says not everyone believes in traditional medicine, and many have attitudes towards it because of the spiritual connotations that have brainwashed many people because of the different churches they go to. Many believe that traditional herbs are only based on witchcraft, not knowing how powerful they are when it comes to our health and protection.

Environmental dynamics

The development and utility of traditional medicine remain low on account of the many challenges it faces. Problems related to regulation, low appreciation and acceptance, and plummeting plant resources are some of the impediments to the development of traditional medicine.

“The dispossession of land by settlers from African people compounds matters to be worse. You need land to plough these herbs. When the drafters of the Constitution accepted the status quo at the multi-party Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) negotiations on the question of land, they did a disservice to their people,” she says.

“The African National Congress (ANC) and the National Party (NP) were running the show. When the Pan African Congress (PAC) launched the slogan, ‘the land first, all shall follow’, they were made to eat a humble pie. It sounded a bit crazy at the time, but look where we are now. Going nowhere slowly.”

Prudence is of the view that there is a political solution to the problem. “This is where the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) come in on the land question. We need land so that it can be easier to access plants and trees and also farm our own herbs, which will benefit all of us. Most of our indigenous herbs have disappeared and burned due to not having access to the land for plantations,” she says.

Will government hospitals, clinics, and medical doctors be prescribing traditional medicine? Will the pharmaceuticals be putting up a fight to retain the market and, or, quickly “steal” the African intellectual property so long and trademark it? Is the level of thinking among the sangomas hovering at this level?

Joe Makhafola is a marketing and communications executive and former spokesperson for the Minister of Communications.