Herbalism; the Ogiek art of saving lives and conserving forests

Herbalism; the Ogiek art of saving lives and conserving forests

In the last few years, Ogiek Peoples’ Development Program (OPDP), has been spearheading the Ogiek community in culture preservation and development. With support from the Global Environmental Facility Small Grants Program (SGP) OPDP is implementing a biodiversity conservation project: Conserving biodiversity through preserving Ogiek Traditional Knowledge on medicine. The project aims to train Ogiek herbalists (alternative medicine practitioners or providers) on the mechanism for protecting their practice and support the documentation of their traditional knowledge on herbal medicine and conservation practices of the Mau forest biodiversity. This project follows the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) objective on conservation of biological diversity and its use. The project also purposes to create linkages among the herbalists, county governments and strategic national stakeholders for continued collaboration, learning and support for the herbalists, and to promote restoration and sustainable use of disappearing herbal plant species in fighting Covid-19 and maintaining healthy ecosystems.

Towards attaining these objectives in Narok County, a steering committee made up of a county official, representative from the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) and the Kenya Wildlife Service(KWS) and Ogiek herbalists was set up. This committee will oversee the implementation of the project ensuring that all the objectives are attained.

Securing herbalists’ intellectual property rights

How best can herbalists secure their intellectual property rights? To answer this question, OPDP organised a two-day training engaging 26 herbalists from Narok county with a keen interest in the streamlining of alternative medicine on protecting their intellectual properties and maximize income earned from the herbal practices.

According to Mr John Samorai; Programs Officer at OPDP, there is a need to protect indigenous knowledge, ensure it is documented and transmitted to future generations. He gave an example of the case of Khoisan in the Southern part of Africa whose knowledge of the Hoodia gordonii also called ‘Bitter Ghaap’ or ‘Kalahari cactus’ plant was exploited by manufacturers into development of a weight loss supplement. He shared how the Khoisan had shared their knowledge about a plant they eat during drought seasons to supress thirst and hunger. The community later on noticed that the peoples they had shared the information with had gone ahead to develop as a weight loss supplement and were earning billions through its utilisation. The community went to court and were able to prove that they were the original owners of the knowledge and subsequently won the case. “This should teach us as indigenous peoples the need to be discreet with our traditional knowledge. As indigenous peoples who are still holding vast traditional knowledge, we should do what the Watta community in Kilifi are doing. They have been using the Mturi Mturi seeds for birth control and they are now establishing a market for this product. We should pursue testing and certification of our medicine and converting them into tablets and capsule instead of selling them in raw form. This will guarantee quality and better returns.” Mr Samorai said.

Who is a herbalist?

A herbalist is an alternative medical provider who uses plants with medicinal qualities to aid in healing ailments. These plants can be herbs, shrubs or parts of trees e.g. roots, leaves or barks. Traditional herbalists make use of traditional knowledge passed to them from their forefathers. This type of knowledge is unique to every community, elders are the guardians and conduits through which the traditional knowledge is protected and transmitted to the next generations without fail.

According to Ogiek community herbalists who attended the training, it is common for a herbalist to specialise in the curing of a certain disease or health condition. For instance, at the training there were herbalists specializing in bones issues, those that deal with fertility and maternal issues, those that handle colds, fevers, treating wounds, cancer, stomach issues among others. It is also common to have a herbalist who is able to deal with a myriad of health issues. They also explained that traditionally, certain families were known to treat specific diseases; this knowledge was passed to each generation without fail. The herbalists further explained that there exists an informal network system where members of the community know different herbalists within the community and the ailment they treat; this network is an informal referral system.

The Narok County government department of culture classifies herbalist based on the form of the herbs that they deal with:  Those dealing with herbs in liquid form are the Liquid herbalists, those that deal with herbs in powder form are the Powder herbalists while those dealing with herbs in dry form are Dry herbalists.

Do not break the chain; let information flow through us to the next generation

Mr Samuel Kobei, a member of the Ogiek Council of Elders, encouraged the gathering of the alternative medicine practitioners to ensure they pass on the traditional knowledge they hold to the next generation. He termed them as knowledge holders and tasked them to be knowledge transmitters.  “I have been an alternative medical practitioner most of my life. I specialize in bones and related ailments. This knowledge was handed to me by my grandparents and to them by their parents before them. This has been an unbroken chain in our community since the beginning of time. As an elder it is now my duty to pass this knowledge to my children and grandchildren. There is a challenge with this transfer of knowledge in our modern society as children are occupied with the formal learning and have minimal time for informal training.  You have seen how since schools were reopened after the closure due to Covid-19 how the school calendar have become packed with very short holiday periods. Previously, holiday seasons were used for equipping our children with informal trainings. This allowed them to be knowledgeable on both formal and informal training. As knowledge holders, we need to be creative to ensure knowledge is shared despite all the challenges posed. Am calling upon each one of you to find a way to share what you know with one or two people in your family. This important knowledge should not die with us. Let us not break the chain of knowledge transfer, as you were taught so should you teach.” Mr Kobei urged the gathered knowledge holders.

Register for a practising licence as an alternative medicine provider

The Narok County government department of Culture conducts registration for alternative medical providers; both individual and groups practitioners. Through the registration, herbalists are given a certificate for practicing, which they are required to renew yearly. The certificate is a form of security as it offers recognition by the government. The certificate can be cancelled in the instances where there is the presence of irrefutable evidence and there are reported genuine cases of the medicine causing harm to those who have consumed it.

Mr. Denis Loongushu, from the department of Culture Narok County and a member of the project’s implementing committee led a session on herbalists’ registration. Through the session, he emphasised the importance of registering as an individual practitioner or as a group. He explained that registration not only offers security to the practitioners but also opens up opportunities for trainings and financial aid that may be available from the county government or interested developers. He explained that before an individual or a group is registered, an assessment has to be carried out. This assessment is made to ascertain if the herbalist is a resident of Kenya and they are well known by the community whose medicine they want to trade in. He added that before a practitioner receives a licence to offer alternative medicine, the poisons and control board must inspect the herbs being offered to ascertain that they are safe for human consumption.

Mr Loongushu noted that out of the 26 herbalists present for the training only one person has a license to offer alternative medicine. He implored the herbalists present to visit his offices where he will personally help them with the registration process. He added that the process is not costly and the annual certificate renewal fee is quite affordable; below 1000/- KSH.

A call to conserve biodiversity

For generations, the Ogiek herbalists have relied on the naturally occurring Mau forest ecosystem to provide the needed raw medicinal plants. However, due to over exertion of forest resources, deforestation and climate change, the herbalists have noted a decrease in the formerly easily available resources, they now have to go deep into the forest to gather the needed resources. They are worried that should aforementioned factors persist some valuable medicinal species will disappear altogether. 

The herbalists lauded this project to have come at the best time to help in establishing a community herbarium where medicinal plant species are to be planted in plenty. These move will not only contribute to the increase of forest cover but also ensure the community herbalists have a constant supply of the needed medicinal raw materials.

Mr James Kwambai, a representative from the Kenya Forest Service (KFS), shared with the present herbalists on the importance of partnership between KFS and the Ogiek herbalists. This is because KFS key mandate is the protection of forest ecosystems with a keen interest in forest covers. On the other hand, herbalists need a thriving forest for their trade. This means both parties desire a flourishing forest ecosystems.

“The traditional healers among the Ogiek possess rich ethno pharmacological knowledge. An in-depth study is needed to identify the high value medicinal plant species; this will in turn indicate the potential for economic development through sustainable collection of these plants. It is on this basis that conservationist can develop management practice of each medicinal plant to increase its conservation and stipulate its wise use. Authorities should engage traditional healers in primary health care and train them accordingly as far as conservation is concerned.”  Kwambai explained.

Kwambai explained that KFS allow the gathering of herbs in the forest as long as the gathering does not interfere with the forest cover. This means that communities are to be careful in their gathering to ensure they do not cause trees to fall (can be caused by excessive harvesting of roots) or dry up (can be caused by excessive harvesting of the barks). He added that there are several conservation practices that gatherers ought to observer including: selective harvesting, planting/domesticating some medicinal plants, setting aside sacred plants/forest areas where no gathering takes place, keeping names, location and use of some plants secret to avoid over harvesting, collecting only dead and fallen wood for fuel, follow traditional morals for harvesters and restrictive harvest seasons and times.

Through the discussions that followed, the herbalists agreed with Kwambai’s conservation harvesting techniques, they termed them to be in line with traditional morals and practices for harvesting. The morals included not sending unsupervised children to gather, harvesting roots from one side of the tree and further from the truck and using mud to cover trees where barks had been harvested.

Techniques use by medicine practitioners to conserve biodiversity

The Ogiek community have been practising gathering with the Mau forest since time immemorial, their techniques have effortlessly continued to preserve the forest biodiversity. These traditional techniques are to be preserved through transmission of it to generations for continued flourishing of both the forest and the community. Some of the techniques and practices include:

During the uprooting of medicinal roots, the gatherer first offered a special prayer thanking the tree for providing the gatherer with roots needed for the health of the community. The gatherer then uproots only a small portion of the roots further from the tree truck and on the sides (on the South and North sides) that will not interfere with the trees stability in case of strong winds.

Harvesting roots further from the tree trunk ensured that the roots sprout after the harvest. The gatherer then offered another prayer to bless the harvested roots and thanking the tree for its offering urging it to keep growing and prospering. Notably, in addition to only uprooting roots on the North and South, the gatherer also alternated this harvesting i.e. if the gatherer harvests on the South side on the first harvest, he does not touch those on the North side, those on the North side are to be harvested on the consequent visit.

The harvesting of medicinal tree barks was done carefully and by experienced gatherers. They harvested sparingly ensuring that the tree could not dry up. Additionally, after harvesting the barks, they would smear the tree truck with mud to cover the ‘wound’ preventing it from infections.

According to the gatherers the Ogiek community is strict on who is allowed to gather. For instance, unsupervised children are not allowed to gather medicine. This is to prevent the community from offending the trees and forest ecosystem and prevent cases of excess harvesting of roots and barks causing damage to the trees.

Add value addition and properly package your products

In attendance during the training was the Director Department of Culture County Government of Narok Ms Violet Sikawa who remarked, “our elders ate our traditional foods and had long lifespans, those still with us are energetic in their old age. This can be attributed to the food they ate which was not processed. We need to go back to our own food as much as we can. We also need to teach our children to protect the environment. Conservation begins with us at the individual level, as parents we need to impact a culture of conservation within our children. For instance, if you teach your children to conserve the environment, they will also teach other children the values of biodiversity conservation. The national government is working for conservation, we should also unite and conserve our biodiversity, together we can stop the degradation of our environment.” She added that Ogiek practitioners should unite together and form register a group or a SACCO to work in developing and advancing their healing art. They can make contributions towards the purchase of various machines for processing their medicine. She said that the government is strategizing on how to advance alternative medicine, the Ogiek should organize themselves and be ready to take up opportunities that are coming.

Throughout the training, herbalists complained that one of the challenges they face on a daily basis is the lack of a safe and conducive space to practice their art. They are constantly harassed and affected by extreme weather conditions. In essence, boiled or liquid herbal medicine should not be exposed to direct sunlight (to prevent further fermentation); the practitioners therefore need a place to store their medicine away from direct sunlight. They also work under unhygienic conditions where rain and sewage waters flow closer to their working areas. Towards correcting this dire situation, Ms Sikawa said, “I have already visited the Director of the municipality for a section to be set aside for herbalists. You will receive a safe space to work. This place will be easy for you to clean and maintain the needed hygienic conditions to practise medicine.”

“I recently visited a herbalist based in Kiambu county, I implore OPDP to take a few representative amongst this group to go and learn from that facility. During my visit, I learnt that they come here in Narok town to buy raw medicine from you. They then add value to these products; they grind the tree barks, roots and leaves into powder and package them into attractive containers which ensures that their products maintain good hygienic standard. Some of the medicine come in the form of capsules; easy to administer dosage then giving roots and leaves. Working together you will be able to acquire the machine used to grind and the one used for packaging. I am looking forward to seeing the Ogiek community well packaged and labelled products being sold in the markets.”  Sikawa said. She concluded by calling upon the Ogiek herbalist to unite and together take advantage of tourism in Narok to market their products.

Challenges, recommendations and way forward

The gathered herbalists and interested stakeholders noted that non-recognition by the county government and other stakeholders as alternative medical practitioners is a reason that derails herbalists and their work. It came to light that lack of knowledge about the registration and licensing processes had been a challenge to the herbalists, this had been solved by this training. The herbalists mentioned lack of a permanent space and structures within the town to work from had been a challenge, the Director of Culture promised to have this resolved as soon as possible. The fencing off of forests has been denying herbalists access to the forest to gather the needed resources for their trade, this is being resolved through the establishment of a working partnership with KFS and KWS. Additionally, loss of indigenous knowledge due to the passing on of some elders before they transmit their knowledge to the younger generation and the over emphases on formal education at the expense of informal training.

The formation of an umbrella group to hold the herbalists together and boost the industry was one of the key achievement of the training. The herbalists trained formed a working steering committee whose first task is to register the group. The representatives from the county government promised to guide the team throughout the registration process.

The present stakeholders promised to supply seedlings of the endangered medicinal species to the herbarium which will be located at the Ogiek Community Cultural Centre grounds in Nkareta, Narok North in Narok County. These will contribute in conservation as the needed species are indigenous trees and shrubs native to Mau forest. In addition to contributing in increasing the tree cover, the herbarium initiative will ensure a constant supply of medicine to the herbalists.


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