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Traditional medicinal plants: Our cultural heritage


International Organization of Traditional
and Medical Practitioners and Researchers
Traditional Health Practitioners Association of Zambia
P.O. Box 34186, Lusaka, Zambia


The practice of traditional medicine, an indispensable cultural heritage, has been legalized and integrated into primary health care in Zambia. Rigorous training programmes for traditional birth attendants and Traditional healers are being conducted by the Ministry of Health with the support of WHO and UNICEF. A Traditional Medicine Research Unit exists in Zambia which collects and conducts analysis on medicinal plants. The maladies existing between traditional medicine and allopathic medicine are examined. Further, avenues for dialogue between the two therapeutic systems are proposed in order to achieve the global objective of health for all by the year 2000.


All countries develop their culture and traditional practices. These indigenous traditional practices are created by needs and the available means to satisfy these needs, and to overcome the difficulties in satisfying them. In times of difficulty, such communities may resort to mystic and supernatural powers for help. This has been the trend from times immemorial, the world over.

Zambia, with a population of 7.6 million people, has an indigenous and traditional culture which is essentially African, and remains so in most parts of the country's nine provinces with 72 tribes in a large country of 750,000 square kilometers.

In spite of passing through successive moulding and transformation, by the introduction of other Western cultures over the ages, Zambian culture, like most of East and Central African Cultures, is still composed of that from the era of myth and magic, through the era of religious dependence to the modern Western culture.

Traditional Medicine in this paper will be defined as medicine of certain people, acquired, taught and practiced in the informal sector, or organized health care of a particular society.

Despite its fundamental role in traditional health care, traditional medicine has been treated with contempt and even branded "Primitive and witchcraft to medical approach." This was more amplified by the colonialists in the African Continent.

One thing these colonialists failed to distinguish was the difference between traditional medicine and its practices, culture and witchcraft. We are all aware that health is an integral part of all communities and that the healthier the people in a given community, the greater is their contribution in the social and economic development of their community. It is therefore important that essential health care services be made universally accessible to every individual, at a cost that can be afforded. In this case the cheapest and most abundant medicinal services are derived from traditional medicinal plants.

Association of traditional healers

In Zambia only one association of traditional healers, has been in existence since 1979. Over 10,000 traditional healers have been registered by the Ministry of health, compared to less than 500 modern doctors.

Amendments of law

A vigorous programme has to be mapped out by relevant ministries to review and amend the old and outdated medical-allied and midwives and nurses acts, as well as the witchcraft acts of the laws of East and Central Africa, in order to enhance full accommodation of both allopathic and traditional medicine and its cultural heritage.

Training programmes

In Zambia to date over 2,000 traditional birth attendants (TBA's) have been trained by WHO and UNICEF, in conjunction with the Ministry of Health. This is aimed at improving health delivery services provided by the ministry's medical and paramedical staff to mothers and children at the (under five) clinics in rural areas. Healers are also being taught to use surgical gloves, oral rehydration salts (ORS), to be more hygienic, to guard against over-dosage, and toxicity on traditional practices, an to use appropriate techniques of storage. At a recent Seminar at N.R.D.C. in September 1989, Dr. Paul Fraund, a WHO representative, expressed willingness to use traditional healers in distributing ORS as it is the case in Brazil, Swaziland, etc. Training is thus vital for the healers.

Research on medicinal plants

A Traditional Medicine Unit has been established at Springbok House, Lusaka, to monitor and promote the collection of herbs from the Traditional Healers through the association's Research Board and other institutions like the National Council for Scientific Research (NCSR), Institute for African Studies at the University of Zambia, Medical Stores Ltd, Mount Makulu Research Station etc. The NCSR came up with a curative drug for tuberculosis through these efforts.

It is in this light that it has become an imperative necessity for ethnobotanists, phytochemists, pharmacognosists, herbal healers, policy makers, financial institutions and other bodies to come together not only for the purpose of dialogue and exchange of information in the use and preservation of medicinal plants, but also in the practical implementation of theories and resolutions resulting from such gatherings.

I would like to recommend that Third World countries should seriously consider the creation of botanical farms for medicinal plants. In such farms herbs collected from other countries could be introduced, preserved and analysed scientifically. Furthermore, I would like emphasise the following points:

(i) There is a great need for integration of traditional healers in national hospitals in order to offer health care to the majority of Zambians.

(ii) Traditional healers, who are the majority among the health care personnel, live and practice within a community whose cultural beliefs, customs, taboos and norms they understand. Hence their services could be quite beneficial to the society.

(iii) The herbs used in traditional medicine are locally, abundantly, and cheaply obtained; and do not require foreign exchange, expensive equipment, or highly trained manpower to develop.

(iv) On one hand healers are not capable of conducting major operations, or give intravenous drips, or to administer injections, blood transfusions, artificial respiration, etc. These are better manned by allopathic doctors. On the other hand when it comes to cases of psychosomatic disorders, anxiety, depression, stress disorders, behaviour problems, hysteria and other neuroses, etc, the traditional healer is the expert to consult.

(v) Over 80% of our African population depend on traditional medical practices for health care.


Modern medicines should get out of their ivory towers and take the initiative for dialogue, exchange of ideas and imparting their knowledge and skills to traditional healers.

Are healers too greedy, proud or defensive to admit inadequate knowledge of internal medicine where it counts? Are modern doctors too proud or conceited to educate the healers or share their knowledge? The result is the citizen of Central and East Africa who pays the price of the perpetual ill-health and short and unproductive life span. Doctors have to come to terms with the reality of traditional healers and its power on our society. Dialogue is the only answer at present.

At present and for the foreseeable future, if we do not continue this sort of dialogue, we are and will be at each others throats, and the Third World and its economic development will be the victim. When we continue with this stupidity we are like two men fighting on a hut roof. A fall of either is fatal! Is the only option to take the other man with you if you are going to fall?

This allegory finds expression in statements that are facile and puerile in the extreme, such as the challenges to treatment modalities by numbers.

(i) The Government should review the witchcraft act and all outdated laws that suppress the development of traditional medicine.

(ii) Adequate finance for traditional medicine research should be assured under government's regular budget, and external finance should be supplementary to the government's main efforts.

(iii) How will the new generation of healers be trained, examined and certified?

(iv) There is a need for the promotion of dialogue to destroy suspicion, secrecy and hostilities existing between traditional healers and modern doctors.

(v) We should refrain from unsubstantiated claims of "know- alls."

(vi) Referral mechanism should be a priority without punitive repercussions on either traditional or modern medicine.

(vii) We need to strengthen training and research on traditional medicine, and start with the most readily feasible herbal remedies.

(viii) We should boost our national economies by joining forces in preventive, community, and productive health care for our people.

To achieve these objectives, and those of health for all by the year 2000 and thereafter, open heart dialogue between the two disciplines of medicines is a must. For neither allopathic nor traditional medicine alone can adequately meet the health needs of our nations.