Tanzania is a very tough place. Beautiful, wild, intimidating, and tough. The plants seem pumped with African magic and everything has more of an edge to it. Acacia thorns wait around every turn. Spiky aloe reaches the sky and is filled with sticky yellow sap that is deeply bitter. The tulsi has much more of a medicinal bite. Fig trees are as grand as sycamores. And above the cloud line, copious amounts of usnea grow like Spanish moss. When you are up this high, the view stretches out forever. “I can see the curve of the earth,” my friend says. The ground is rocky and demands your undivided attention, lest you stumble. The flora, fauna, and terrain make my dear Florida seem very small and tame (and comforting).
I came to the small town of Wasso, Tanzania with a project started by Guido Mase to incorporate local herbal medicine into the hospital. The goal is to be part of an effort to bridge the gap between traditional medicine and western medicine. For me, it was the perfect opportunity to work with both my EMT and herbal skills. In the states, I dance between these two worlds that can compliment each other so well when they are utilized in tandem. Let me state clearly, I did not come to Africa to “help” people, I came to learn from them, and hone in on the skills of autonomous healthcare (opportunities to use herbal medicine in hospital settings do not exist in the states). This picture to the left shows a traction splint fashioned with sticks and a ripped up bed sheet.
To care for someone’s wound day after day is a wonderful privilege and can present with challenges. Every wound is different, just as each person’s healing capacities vary. Herbs have so much to offer, both externally and internally, to support the body’s process. Using raw honey topically on wounds produces results that continually amaze me. This alone is a valuable addition to any hospital. For not only is it important to keep wounds clean, but with trauma, it should also be essential to employ care that encourages tissue regeneration, like honey and vulnerary herbs. This photo shows the two-week progression of a calf burn. We used prickly pear, which Guido is harvesting in the photo below.
Besides wound care, we also provided support to patients with herbal teas prepared from plants we gathered around the village. Medicinal teas are a foreign concept to many in the states, but this is not the case in Tanzania. Plant medicine is still a part of the culture, and it is taken with much compliance. Alas, as the industrialized world spreads its web of influence, herbal medicine (and other skills) seem to be falling by the wayside. I hope they can hold onto the ancestral knowledge that still lies at their fingertips.
An hour’s walk from the hospital lives a Maasai herbalist named Sangau N Swekei. We visited him one day and found his home filled with folks who had traveled to receive his care. Though he was very busy, he invited us for chai (sweetened warm milk) and showed us many plants that he uses and loves. While he introduced us to medicine his father had taught him, he brewed a dark decoction of roots over an open fire, underneath the Ol’lousigi tree (Zanthozylum chalybeum, a prickly ash). What a gift to witness this herbalist taking care of his corner of the world. He sent us on our way with a backpack full of roots and branches.
This trip was my first time outside of North America, and it was remarkable to be surrounded by a traditional culture that is still very intact; the Maasai. A month’s visit is just a small peak into their herding way of life, but it is a big step back, with a long contemplative gaze, at the culture I come from. In the states, we always seem to be rushing about, regrettably pulled along by stress, our ever-present and irritating dictator. In Tanzania, time seemed to slow. We took chai breaks. We sat on the porch beading and listening to cowbells of the nearby herd moving through the village. I immersed myself in a fiction book for the first time in years. Indeed, stress is not as present in the place. For this experience, and all the rest, I am grateful.
Shade is a hot commodity!