What you need to know:
- The Turkana people, who swear by the efficacy of the traditional toothbrush, are now forced to travel for long distances in search of it.
- However, the “esekon” is sold at high prices in larger towns.
- The indigenous ‘esekon’ tree can withstand long periods of drought and is also used for feeding for livestock.
James Ewoi, 48, lives in Canaan village on the outskirts of Lodwar town. He has never cleaned his teeth using a store-bought toothbrush and toothpaste.
He is among residents of Turkana County who have stuck to traditional oral hygiene practices using “esekon” — an improvised toothbrush made from an indigenous tree scientifically known as “Salvadora persica”.
"I come from a community of nomadic pastoralists. Early in the morning we get twigs from the ‘esekon’ tree (toothbrush tree) which we chew and use to clean our teeth," Mr Ewoi told Nation.Africa.
But the traditional medicinal toothbrush has now become expensive and hard to find because the 'esekon' tree is on the verge of extinction due to the effects of climate change.
The Turkana people, who swear by the efficacy of the traditional toothbrush, are now forced to travel for long distances in search of it. However, the “esekon” is sold at high prices in larger towns.
The indigenous ‘esekon’ tree can withstand long periods of drought and is also used for feeding for livestock.
Mr Ewoi moved from Kaputir village in Turkana South Sub- County with his family five years ago after all his livestock was stolen by bandits.
But he is a worried man because the once easy to find ‘esekon’ trees are swiftly becoming rare in his neighbourhood. The price of one “esekon” toothbrush has shot up from Sh5 to Sh20 in Lodwar town in five years.
"Whenever my relatives visit me from the village, I always remind them to bring for me some ‘esekon’ sticks which can sustain my family for at least two months because I can't afford the cost in town. There are days that we don't have them completely," Mr Ewoi narrated.
He said that during the drought period, his goats and sheep feed on the leaves and young shoots of the “esekon” tree.
Another Lodwar resident, Jane Losekon, said that she has been using the traditional toothbrush from the “esekon” tree for the last 30 years. Ms Losekon said that she has never had any dental problems such as tooth decay, bad breath or gum disease.
"Even though I can afford the plastic toothbrushes and toothpaste sold in shops, I use the ‘esekon’ toothbrush at least thrice a week for stronger teeth," Ms Losekon said.
She, however, said that it has become more difficult to find vendors selling “esekon” toothbrushes in Lodwar town because the trees are rare.
The evergreen ‘esekon’ tree that grows about five meters tall is among the highly sought after indigenous trees for fodder and also for making charcoal. But after four failed rainy seasons in Turkana County, the trees have become hard to come by.
Climate change expert Thomas Kiyonga explained that the leaves of the “esekon” tree make good fodder because of high water content.
"There is a notable difference in the distribution of the tree species, thus affecting biodiversity. People’s responses to climate change are entwined with their response to many other changes. And as a desperate measure to adapt to the changes, those who lost their livestock to drought haven’t spared the ‘Salvadora persica’ which they use for burning charcoal as an alternative income generating source," Mr Kiyonga, who is also the County Deputy Director for Climate Change, said.
He said that they have stepped up reforestation with much focus on the indigenous trees such Salvadora persica which takes time to mature.
"The tree is a very useful to the Turkana community and it has high potential for economic value as a source of oil and it also has medicinal properties. The tree produces fruits which are eaten by herdsmen during periods of drought," Mr Kiyonga said.
Climate justice activist Peter Epakan said that because of the “esekon” tree’s medicinal value, the World Health Organization has highly recommended its use for oral hygiene.
"With such indigenous trees in Turkana facing a serious risk of extinction owing to climate change and a myriad of hazardous human activities, the county government and other agencies such as the Kenya Forestry Research Institute and Kenya Forest Service should put in place measures to protect them," Mr Epakan said.
He warned residents against the wanton destruction of indigenous trees in a bid to tackle desertification.
"Locals should stop cutting indigenous trees for burning charcoal as the trees provide fruits, forage for livestock and shade. People should plant more trees and conserve the indigenous species," he said.