As a volunteer working in the Sahel of Niger, the poorest country in the world, I have learned much more from the inhabitants of my small village than I could ever hope to teach them. Although I have a large “demonstration” garden in which many of the village children garden alongside me, the villagers’ knowledge of the trees and plants, as well as their uses, far surpasses anything that I could hope to learn in my time here.
When I first arrived in the Sahelian village, I often took evening “tree walks” with several of the children in order to learn the name of each tree and plant as well as its medicinal and nutritional qualities. Nearly everything that grows here has a use, and most plants have multiple uses. The people of Niger use trees and plants as medicine, food, shelter, and animal fodder. All survival and existence is directly tied to the plants that grow in the area.
Living off the land
With an average annual income of approximately $200, Nigerians have no choice but to survive off of the land. Some “Western” medicines are available, and most of the villagers actually prefer them, but they are expensive and inaccessible to many of the people who live here. The trees and plants serve the same function, and there seems to be a cure that can be derived from the trees for anything and everything.
The Acacia nilotica, in particular, has many uses. A form of gum arabic, used in sodas and eaten as candy, is extracted from the trunk. The seeds and seed pods are ground with a mortar and pestle, boiled in water, and given to young babies to drink; the people believe that it makes the babies strong and helps their stomachs. Adults also drink the pounded seeds with water for stomachaches. The seeds are also used externally. After working in my field, I had blisters covering the palms of my hands. One of my friends collected some seeds from the gum arabic tree, pounded them up, and covered my hands in the solution. My hands felt better almost immediately.
Other trees are used as medicines as well. The Adansonia digitata, commonly known as the baobab tree, is used for asthma attacks and diarrhea. The neem tree (Azadirachta indica) is believed to cure malaria. Branches are gathered and boiled in water, then the water is repeatedly used to bathe. A small amount of the water is consumed once every three days until the malaria is cured. The seedpods of Pilostigma reticulatum are used to relieve tooth pain and the fruits from the tamarind tree (Tamarindus indica) are added to bathing water to treat measles.
Trees in the Sahel have other uses as well. The people use Combretum glutinosum as a calendar by making an incision in the trunk every year. Even the Euphorbia balsamifera, although poisonous, has proved useful in this land; it contains a milky fluid used to make poison arrows, as an insecticide, and as a disinfectant for boils. And when in need of mosquito repellent for camels and other animals, the Acacia seyal is burned, putting smoke in the air to chase the bugs away.
Plant nutrition and medicine
In addition to living off of the land, nutrition is important to these villagers, so the leaves of many trees are eaten for the vitamin C they add to their diets. The Moringa oleifera has a high vitamin C content; the leaves are boiled until they are tender and then eaten with hot pepper and peanuts. The fruit of the baobab tree has nutritional value similar to a banana, as does the fruit from the Ziziphus mauritanica.
Sometimes an ailment requires additional help. In the weekly market there are always medicine men selling traditional, plant-derived medicines. They sit on blankets with their barks and plants spread around them, along with animal heads, snakeskins, and other oddities that are said to heal various afflictions. I even found it necessary to visit a medicine man recently myself.
I arrived at home one day to find a snake in my hut, then found another in my garden well. The villagers insisted that I get some “snake medicine” from the medicine man to prevent me from seeing another. Two different powders were given to me. I had to drink one for three consecutive days, and the other was burned in my yard and garden for three consecutive nights to protect me from snakes. Supposedly, I would not see one, but if I did happen upon one it would not be able to harm me. Another snake showed up in my garden well, but it was a non-poisonous one. As I picked up a handful of my bean harvest to put into a sack, a snake slithered out of the bean pile. Perhaps the medicine worked, as I wasn’t ever bitten, but I have my reservations.
A friend bought medicine for bad dreams and insomnia, a green powder taken from a tree that the medicine man would not divulge. They are very secretive about where their medicines come from and the plants that are used.
In this land where the people rely on plants for sustenance, there is also a plant to provide the cure for any affliction.
Rita Herkal has been a volunteer with the Peace Corps in Niger, Africa, for two years and recently purchased her own camel for transportation. She spends her time teaching the villagers how to establish gardens.