History and Description

Ethnomedicine is a system that applies both art and science to help the human body to restore its health and well-being. It utilises natural remedies to activate the immune system. Herbs are used for cleansing, elimination and detoxification. Some are used to stimulate the body’s self-healing capabilities to counteract physical symptoms, whilst others may be used as a tonic to help the body’s immunity.

The human body easily assimilates nutrients, vitamins, minerals, antibiotics and hormonal substances from plants to obtain both food and medicine. Ethnomedicine is a healing modality for chronic ongoing problems. With the skilful selection of herbs, a profound transformation in health can be affected without the danger of the unpleasant side effects inherent in drug-based medicines. Plants have a direct impact on physiological activity and by knowing what body processes one wants to help or heal; the appropriate herb or plant action can be selected.

The Practical Significance of Ethnomedicine

Ethnomedicine is a specialist area that is not restricted to describing exotic healing practices, but actually offers concrete practical help in everyday clinical medicine. Thus, Ethnomedicine facilitates communication with patients from all walks of life. Moreover, an Ethno Medical practitioner’s observations and analyses within the scope of Ethnomedicine’s understanding of the inherent conceptions held by their patients, with regard to illness and therapy, has heightened the medical and nursing fraternity. Thus, these practitioners are better equipped to pinpoint and respond to their patient’s needs. This is of importance since if patients lose trust in the exponents of conservative medicine, they often turn to alternative medicine and may fail to receive adequate medical care. Ethnomedicine is considered to be an unbiased science by its proponents.



It is generally accepted that Africa is the cradle of mankind and the use of herbs is as old as mankind itself. African herbal medicine is the oldest; most tried and tested form of medicine known to mankind. In a sense it is degrading to refer to it as an “alternative”, since herbs form the basis of all medicine. Conventional drugs, homeopathic medicine, Chinese medicines all owe their existence to African herbal medicines and herbs.

In contrast with western medicine, which is analytically based and emphasizes the treatment of symptoms rather than the cure of the underlying causes, African herbal medicine takes a holistic approach to health. It is a discipline involving the extensive use of herbs combined with aspects of a patient’s psychological health. The skills and botanical knowledge of African Traditional Medical Practitioners on plants, their ecology and properties are invaluable.

Healers use plants in a variety of ways; whole or in part as teas, infusions, applied directly to wounds and cuts or prepared as powders for use as snuff or as smoke. Within plants, lies the power to heal, nourish, sustain and transform. It is power granted to whoever wishes to draw from it. It is within these African plants that the secrets for health and wellness prevail.

 Not only has Nature blessed Southern Africa with a generous richness of flora, but also with the expertise on their uses. Over 30 000 species grace this diverse landscape. Ethno-botany is beginning to reveal the healing secrets and nutritional value of Africa’s plants.

Why has the conventional medical profession not embraced traditional herbs in the same way it has drugs? The answer has to do with money, power and teaching methods. Conventional medicine exercises its domination by rejecting other medicinal practices as “unscientific and/or untested”. It enforces its will through institutions, which, against popular will and opinion, disallow other medicinal methods and products.

Herbal medicine has been used by all cultures for centuries and is still the main form of medical treatment among 80% of the world’s population (statistics from WHO). Many of today’s drugs (e.g., quinine, reserpine, ephedrine, ipecac, etc) come directly from plants while most synthetic drugs are based on chemicals extracted from herbs.

African medicinal plants have been well documented and scientifically tested for tuberculosis, malaria, cancer and other ailments. It is time that we turn to these medicines, which are affordable, non-toxic, effective, natural and South African’s cultural right. It is time to move away from old attitudes and embrace a new way thinking that respects and reveres our human heritage and knowledge. African herbal medicines form an integral part of our past, present and future. It offers real solutions and progress.

The Case for Traditional Herbal Medicine.

  1. The practices of traditional medicine date back many centuries and have therefore been as “tried and tested” as many of the scientific medicines which are often more harmful and with a higher degree of side-effects. Traditional doctors are generally paid by results and recognize the essentials of culture, which should never be scorned because of ignorance and/or arrogance.
  2. The apprenticeship training of traditional doctors is extensive and arduous, subject to protocols and disciplines similar to bio-medical approaches.
  3. The holistic approach is one being increasingly adopted by scientific medicine. Modern lifestyles require even greater attention to the psycho-social aspects of healing, which has always been a fundamental tenet of traditional medicine.
  4. The use of herbs and other organic substances by traditional medicine is another practice now increasingly followed by western medicine. Modern medicine itself has proved the value of “unsophisticated” diets, and the use of herbal remedies is generally less invasive or aggressive than the scientific preponderance of scheduled drugs and frequent surgery.

In the world stage, African traditional herbs are proven winners, much to the annoyance of conventionalists. Some famous cases;

  • The bestseller Cold and Flu remedy in Germany and England is the Pelargonium Sidoides. So great is its popularity, that the Chinese have copied this South African plant and are selling it as their own, contravening the Rio Treaty. It has recently entered the US market and gained a foothold as an effective natural antibiotic.
  • The USA sells Aloe and Rooibos products. Both are indigenous plants from South Africa.
  • The Dutch have taken the Gladiolus from South Africa and build an industry around it. Recently, this plant has received the attention of researchers for its medicinal potential.
  • Some pharmaceuticals have entered into agreements with institutions such as the CSIR for actives from various African plants. A bitter battle ensued between the real owners of the IP of these plants, the bushman, and the CSIR. Documented by the BBC on how the indigenous people are being ripped-off by big pharmaceuticals, it is a must see for everyone, especially the international community.
  • South African Universities examined the African Helichrysum used by African healers in ritual rites and Traditional medicine. The results are nothing short of extraordinary; it showed activity for herpes simplex virus type 1, activity against all the gram-positive bacteria, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and considerable activity against fungi. Research on its actives is being carried out in order to sell them to international buyers.
  • An international pharmaceutical bought the research on Artemisia and patented it. It followed up by developing a “novel” drug that is presently being sold for Malaria.
  • Since trials were conducted on the efficacy of the Devil’s Claw, this herb has gained a foothold in the European and USA markets.  Mainly sold for arthritis, pain and as a cortisone alternative, its sales in Germany have risen to over 50 million Euros.  Not bad for a little plant from Africa.

The growing popularity of African traditional herbs furthers the cause of African Traditional Medicine. Many of these plants are being tested and their claims verified by scientific institutions. No longer can claims be rejected as unscientific or/and unreliable. There is real science behind the administration of African Traditional herbal medicine and its products.

The western scientific community can only verify in laboratory conditions claims made by Traditional Doctors. In turn, the Traditional Doctor can teach Western scientist the properties of medicinal plants, the different species, the synergy between these plants and possible side effects. With respect to African medicinal plants, the Traditional Doctor has more to offer the world than western scientists.


Scientists worldwide are looking for “new cures” in collaboration with traditional healers.  The reality is that these so called “new cures” have existed for generations and may be a new discovery to western scientists but they have always been a part of traditional culture, knowledge and are therefore our national right and asset.

Taking an active out of a plant is like listening to a lone cord from an instrument within an orchestra; more often than not, it makes no sense and is totally misleading with regard to the whole symphony.

Against popular will, pharmaceuticals have in the past tried to ban herbal and traditional medicine. Any data other than clinical trials is considered as unreliable claims, so-called ethno-botanical and anecdotal data.  What is omitted is the fact that it is often through anecdotal and ethno-botanical data that pharmaceuticals research and formulate their products. Furthermore, the truth about these clinical trials and the side effect that drugs cause is often hidden from the public and professionals alike. Legal actions against pharmaceuticals come about because of lies, not their openness or care for the public at large.


People that profess African herbs as a source of witchcraft practice are untruthful either through total ignorance, stupidity or are purposefully misleading the public for personal gain.

Herbs have been mentioned in historical literature, and in the Bible. The Bible states: “I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for food.”  Genesis 1 verse 29

Mankind has, since its creation, used herbs to treat illnesses. Herbs are the primary healing source for mankind and are used by all religions and their true teachers, masters and prophets. We have to look no further than to the time of Buddha, Christ and Mohamed. They and their followers used herbs as tools for healing and well-being, as mankind has always done. There is nothing evil or unnatural about herbs.

Herbal Medicine

Herbs are a The Natural Source of Healing – the primary source of medicine for mankind. Our knowledge base of herbs derives directly from Traditional medicine practices. Unlike drugs, that generally have countless side effects, herbs can realign the body’s defences, helping it to heal itself as well as disease. Herbs work in synergy with the individual. Herbs have a natural, vital energy that has the ability to maintain and boost the body’s natural immune system and protect it from disease.

In the early civilizations, food and medicine were inextricably linked, and many plants were eaten for their health-giving properties. For example, the armies of slaves that laboured to build the Egyptian pyramids took a daily ration of garlic in order to ward off pestilential fevers and infections that were rife at the time. By this time, written Clay models of garlic bulbs were found in an Egyptian tomb dating 3750 BC. In what is believed to be the world’s first industrial dispute, the slaves building the Great Pyramid went on strike when their garlic ration was cut.

Ancient cultures, like Egyptians, were highly skilled with herbs. The ancient text written in 1500 BC contains records of over 700 herbs and their beneficial properties – the first herbals. The papyrus from the city of Thebes, lists many medicinal herbs that are still in use today.

As well as the Egyptians, the ancient Greeks and Romans were practitioners of herbal medicine. As their armies conquered the then known world, military doctors took the plants and their uses with them – and also gained new skills as they travelled. For example, the Roman conquers of Britain brought with them many Mediterranean herbs, including lavender and rosemary.

The earliest written records on the use of the poppy and its extracts, heroin, first appeared during the time of Christ. These records mention the use of heroin as a painkiller and warn of its side effects such as addiction. New forensic evidence points to heroin being used by the Egyptian upper classes during the time of the Pharaohs as a painkiller.

From the Dark ages into the medieval times, herbals were painstakingly hand-copied in British and other monasteries – each of which had its own garden for growing herbs to treat both monks and local people.

The advent in the 15th century of the printing press encouraged the compilation and publication of herbals. Nicholas Culpeper (1616-54) wrote the famous herbal, The English Physician Enlarged (1649), which has been in print ever since. By 1800, a vast amount of traditional lore on the medicinal use of herbs was available from Britain, Europe, Middle East, Asia and the Americas.

Chinese, North American and Indian cultures have always relied heavily on herbal medicine. The Chinese have practiced herbal medicine for 5000 years. To this day Chinese herbs play a vital part in health care, and there are numerous schools of herbal medicine and herbal dispensaries in most hospitals.

However soon after, the growth in popularity and power of scientifically inspired conventional medicine send the profession of herbal medicine into a decline – although it continued to flourish in the countryside.

In 1864 the National Association (later Institute) of Medical Herbalists was founded to train and maintain standards of practice, which remain in existence today. In its early years – and well into the present day – the Institute resisted attempts by orthodox medical pressure groups to have herbal medicine banned.

Public opinion was with the herbalists, helping them to stay in business. Gradually interest in herbalism increased – especially over the past 20 years – as more and more people questioned the use of synthetic drugs and their prolonged and sometimes alarming side effects.

Today, scientists are predicting that herbal remedies will lead a revolution in medical treatment within the next ten years, using ancient recipes with thousands of active compounds instead of pharmaceuticals with a single active element.

In Natal (South Africa), more than 400 species of indigenous plants are sold commercially. Some of these plants are so popular that the demand for them is threatening their very survival. A similar situation exists throughout Asia, Africa and South America.

There are many benefits of herbs. Herbs help cleanse and purify the body, regulate and tone the organs to function normally. Herbs are high in vitamins and minerals and other nutrients that nourish and build the body. Herbs allow the body to have extra energy to heal itself, and finally herbs promote the body’s natural good bacteria. Herbs take up substances from the earth and convert them into vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats that our bodies use for nourishment and healing. By using the whole herb, we take in all the natural goodness and vital ingredients they carry. Most herbs contain several active substances, one of which usually dominates and determines its choice as a remedy. Other healing aspects of herbs should not be overlooked because they help the body to assimilate its benefits and buffer any side effects.