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Crushed herbs that ‘bring back lives’ in border town

By Brigid Chemweno | March 18th 2015
Bornot Herbal Women Group, Namanga women show how they make medicine for sell. [ON 12/03/15 PHOTO; JENIPHER WACHIE/STANDARD]

Kajiado, Kenya:  At Olgulului village in Kajiado South overlooking the Kenya-Tanzania border, there is something akin to a phenomenon. It is refreshing to see women in colourful Maasai shukas cheerfully selling herbs. Some are dry roots and barks while the liquid medicine is bottled.

The women say they are on a mission to “bring back lives”, through herbal medicine.

Those who frequent social hangouts especially where roast meat is sold, are familiar with tall slender men marketing herbal medicine from Maasailand as miti ni dawa but never women.

The women are best at selling beads, or so we thought, until this humid Thursday afternoon when we meet these saviours of the sick.

They say, modern medicines are costly and health facilities are too far off, exposing many to unnecessary deaths. That is why they came up with alternative means to heal wounded bodies and hurting souls.

The women, who have formed the Ole Bornot Herbal Group, market the use of herbal medicine to treat diseases like diabetes, tuberculosis, syphilis, gonorrhoea, pneumonia, ringworms, arthritis, malaria and erectile dysfunction.

Other areas covered include dental hygiene, wound dressing, “cleaning” women after giving birth, appetite enhancing, chest and lung related problems.

In Olgulului, the use of herbal medicine is a norm and residents say the medicine is rich in natural components which boost the body’s immunity.

The founder of Ole Bornot, Catherine Oloitiptip, says the aim  of starting the group last year was to keep the cost of healthcare at the minimum, saying majority of Kenyans cannot afford to seek specialised treatment due to poverty.

community‘s rich plants

“Accessing medicare, for the locals, is a nightmare. One has to travel to the Namanga border, which is the nearest town but quite a distance away. Our only means of transport in this place is by boda boda and many people cannot afford it since it is expensive. The community is rich in plants with medicinal value and we have confidence in them,” Catherine says.

Ole Bornot, in the local dialect, is a tree with fruits that children and herders like eating while looking after livestock in the fields.

The group comprises of 30 women herbalists who have come together not only to deliver their services to the people but also to gain economic empowerment.

“Different parts of the medicinal plants like the roots and the bark are used to treat different types of diseases. We get these plants from Siamalin and Oldonyo hills in Kajiado South.”

Though majority of the members in the group have not stepped into a classroom, Catherine says the use of traditional medicine in the community is a basic component of the Maasai culture and, therefore, its practice is learned gradually throughout one’s life and it is passed down from one generation to another.

Sharing knowledge

To complement their natural knowledge of traditional medicine, the women visit their counterparts in neighbouring Tanzania to get other herbs which they may not get in their locality.

Catherine, who is also a primary school teacher in the nearby Olgulului Primary School and a midwife, says all remedies are taken orally.

The bark, fruits and seeds are dried in the scorching sun before they are crushed and packed in small bags ready to be taken to the market.

“The roots of some plants are boiled and mixed with soup or milk to cleanse the body and digestive system from polluting substances,” she explains.

Saidimu ole Ndooki, 46, says men support the women herbalists and they help them to prepare the herbal soup, at times going deep into the forest to get the herbs.

Ole Ndooki says that through Ole Bornot Herbal Group, the women in the community have improved their lives economically.

Says he, “I don’t remember the last time I visited a hospital courtesy of these herbs.

The women, most of whom did not get access to education, have the healing gift and they can identify the symptoms of various diseases.”

The herbal soup is prepared in the bushes away from the homestead. It is taken before meals to stimulate appetite and after to ensure good digestion.

He explains that the two-hour process of preparing the special soup is not an easy task.

“Once prepared, it  takes about 30 minutes to mix the soup and the herbs. Everyone is allowed to take the special soup before and after every meal,” he explains.

However, their medicine is not a cure for every condition, he says.

“Going to hospital is also important inasmuch as there are herbs. In the case of accidents and vaccination of children, a doctor is required,” he says.

Saitun Kupere, 60, a herbalist in the group, says she has been able to provide basic necessities for her children and treats them with the traditional medicine.

“My husband is pleased with my work since I no longer borrow money from him. Instead I support the family,” says Susan.

Though they encourage the use of herbal medicine, Kupere says they also embrace environmental conservation to protect their plants for posterity.

Carolyne Langete, 44, says she has knows all the trees with medicinal value in the locality and the ailments they treat.

“This has helped me to be self-reliant and I use the returns to purchase books and uniform for my children.”

Catherine says they are governed by rules and regulations and those who do not abide by them are dismissed by the group members.

no gossiping

“We embrace hard work and we do not encourage gossiping. If one breaches the rules, she is dismissed from the group. We also encourage girls to go to school and no one in this group is allowed to circumcise their girls or marry them off at an early age,” she states.

The members make a monthly contribution of Sh100 and aim at raising the amount when the market becomes more vibrant.

The women have learnt how to avoid the wild animals they used to encounter on their way to the hills near Amboseli National Park.

Every Saturday, they sell their traditional medicine in Olgulului market but they plan to expand their reach to other nearby towns.

She says Kajiado Women Representative Mary Seneta has supported them by ensuring that they take part in exhibitions within the county to market their products.

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