Here and There: Medicinal Plants in Niger

A Peace Corps volunteer finds a land rich in plants used to prevent illness and cure ailments in Niger.

| February/March 2003

  • Herbs are a common sight at the market in this Sahelian village of Niger.

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.

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