Our natural veld holds an incredible wealth and value of medicinal plants, the uses of which modern man seems unaware. The trees, herbs, shrubs, even tubers and grasses have played a big role in the past to restore health to both people and animals alike.
Traditionally, this knowledge was passed from elders to children because people of that time were forest dwellers, so herbalists and traditional healers held invaluable knowledge of the vast variety of plants. These people got their medicinal understanding by several means. The knowledge of the stomach of certain animal species would guide them to know and understand what man could or could not use. An example: the elephant as a non-ruminant would eat certain plants, which had medicinal values specifically for them. The same reasoning applies to baboons and monkeys; the herbalists and traditional healers would observe what they ate for food and what they ate for medicinal reasons.
African men would get more of this knowledge from dreams while others had the skills passed down through the family.
To understand the medicinal value of the trees and other plants careful study of the vernacular names is important, because that is an indication of their properties. These names describe how these plants were used in ancient times. Unfortunately, cultural degradation means this knowledge is rapidly disappearing. From biblical times to the Bushman, from the Bantu era to modern man… all lived in similar habitats with many of the same kind of plants and bushes used for the same kind of medicine. These plants were named according to the way they were used.
The research I have personally done around Zimbabwe has yielded many interesting types of treatments from our trees. In this article, I shall discuss a few of our wonderful plants and their uses.
The Miombo Rattle Pod (Crotalaria), found in Matabeleland South, is known as ‘bambanichase’ by the Ndebele. It is used by men to improve their potency. They chew the plant’s root, which looks like a carrot in shape and in colour. It is very sweet in taste.
The elephant dwarf root (Elephantorrhiza rubescens) is a large red underground tuber. The Ndebele call it ‘ndolwane’, while the Shona name is ‘torani’. Historically and even today, it is an important plant, used as a medicine for the treatment of abdominal complications such as constipation and in backache, especially for people in their mid-30s and over. Men and women use it to benefit their reproductive systems.
In Zimbabwe, this tree is only found in rocky areas especially in granite outcrops. Personally, I have found it in Gonarezhou, the Matobo Hills and around Great Zimbabwe.
The South Eastern Lowveld of Zimbabwe is rich in traditional tree medicine. In the areas where the Shangaan and Ndaus live – which includes the same tribes in Mozambique – the tonga-kerrie tree (Cladostemon kirkii) is used extensively. The root is used as an antibiotic medicine to clear the blood of infection, especially malaria. The powder from this root is mixed in steaming hot black tea first thing in the morning. As with all medicine, plenty of water must be drunk during the morning. This will help the antibiotic work as it flushes the infection out of the body.
Other plants used for the same medicinal reason by these tribes include the Sabi morning glory (Ipomea family) and the mopane leaf, which is chewed. This needs to be done when the first signs of malaria develop.
The long-pod cassia (Cassia abreviata), known as ‘murumanyama’ in Shona and ‘Umthundulu’ in Ndebele, has another similar useful property which I have personally observed and used. The powdered form of the roots and bark is used to treat different abdominal disorders. This herbal medicine is used extensively throughout the country by all the local tribes.
This is a small snippet and insight into the wonderful medicinal properties of our indigenous plants. I intend to and will in the future add more to this wealth of traditional healing. For me, herbal healing is the way to go and it should become a way of life.
Why not make it yours?
Text and Photography by Sam Magwai.
Sam, a father of three, started his guiding career at Chilo Gorge Safari Lodge, completing his voluntary apprenticeship as a trainee guide over four years. Since attaining his guides’ licence in 2006, he has guided all over Zimbabwe, including Gonarezhou National Park, Save Valley Conservancy, Matopos National Park and Hwange National Park. He has guided for overland safaris and been involved in hunting safaris to improve his tracking skills. Sam is the owner and partner of the Lowveld Wanderers, operating from Chipinda Pools in Gonarezhou National Park. A real bushman with a wealth of knowledge about the natural history of this country and a well-versed Zimbabwean historian, Sam is passionate about the uses of traditional herbal medicines obtained from indigenous plants and trees. Sam likes music, physical exercise, observation research and learning.