Rael Busienei, 76, was getting weary. She had been in and out of hospital for several months, after feeling a small, hard and painful lump on her left breast. She spent many sleepless nights with only pain for company. Doctors diagnosed her with breast cancer and told her she would have to undergo a mastectomy (surgery to remove a breast with cancer).
“I lost hope when they told me I had cancer, and that I would have to lose my breast,” Mrs Busienei recounted recently at her home in Matunda, Uasin Gishu County.
She was put on medication and scheduled for chemotherapy, but lack of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) facilities to track the cancer, delayed the process. In the midst of despair, someone mentioned that Boniface Ndura, a herbalist at the Kitale Nature Conservancy, could help her, and reckoning that she had nothing to lose, she decided to give it a try as a compliment to conventional medicine.
At the conservancy, Mr Ndura prescribed a concoction of boiled Capparis tomentosa roots, which she took diligently. Three years later, she has nothing but praises for the remedy.
“I feel liberated! I sleep through the night and I am no longer in pain,” said Mrs Busienei, who never went back to hospital for fear that doctors would cut off her breast.
“I didn’t see the need to go back to hospital because I was no longer in pain and I could perform some of my house chores,” she added, saying that she does not have immediate plans to go back to hospital for a check-up.
While her symptoms have improved significantly, it is not clear if she is free from cancer, because she has not been back to hospital for review.
Capparis tomentosa (African caper or woolly caper bush) is a plant that grows in stressful environments like hills or mountainous areas and entwines itself on other plants for support. It can grow to a height of between one to two feet.
“Most plants under the genus Capparis are very poisonous, but the one in my botanical garden has beautiful white flowers, is very aromatic and has the ability to treat many diseases,” explained Mr Ndura, adding that the plant can treat high blood pressure, asthma, allergy, nerve problems, depression, fibroids, infertility and skin diseases, among other ailments.
The roots of the plant are boiled for about six hours to produce a herbal concoction, which is mixed with honey to preserve it.
Researchers from the Centre for Traditional Medicine and Drug Research at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) and scholars from leading universities in Kenya have studied the medicinal extracts from Capparis tomentosa, testing its safety and efficacy as a treatment for various ailments.
“We have not done much research on Capparis tomentosa as a remedy for the management of breast cancer, but we have worked with other researchers and taxonomists at the National Museums of Kenya on the use of plant-based medicines as alternatives to conventional treatment,” said Director of the Centre for Traditional Medicine and Drug Research (CTMDR) Dr Peter Mwitari.
He added that an intern from the institute has been at Mr Ndura’s botanical garden in Kitale on fact finding mission on the safety of Capparis tomentosa as a traditional medicine.
'IT WORKED FOR US'
As Mr Ndura calls on Kemri and other researchers to look into the medicinal value of the plant, for more scientific credibility, another patient, 63-year-old Francis Mureithi, who lives in Kitale, weighs in on what the herb has done for him.
Mr Mureithi, who used to work as a matatu driver, was diagnosed with diabetes 10 years ago. The condition took a toll on his health, forcing doctors to amputate his right leg.
“In 2010, my leg started rotting and doctors cut it off. They told me the other leg would be amputated in two years and that I could even lose my life because my blood sugar levels were still too high, even though I was on treatment.”
Mr Mureithi was also suffering from hypertension, which almost saw him lose his eyesight, though a timely surgery saved it.
“I had to quit work due to prolonged hospitalisation,” he recalls.
Then in 2014, he heard about herbal medicine that had helped people suffering from diabetes and decided to give it a shot.
“I feel much better and there is no wound on my leg,” he said, pulling up his trouser to show his amputated leg with a prosthetic limb.
Mr Mureithi still goes to hospital every two to three months for review, but he swears that the herbal remedy saved his life and improved its quality.
“I still use insulin to regulate my blood sugar, because sometimes it goes up when I consume certain foods. But after I started taking the herbal extract, I can do more work and I don’t fall sick as often as I used to. I can even exercise,” he said, adding that he had not disclosed to his doctor that he takes a herbal remedy.
“They will not believe that herbal medicine works,” he said, when asked why he had not shared the information with his doctor.
Yet another patient, Pauline Simiyu from Kamkuiywa in Bungoma County, says the herb has helped her nine-year-old daughter fight sickle cell anaemia.
“She fell sick as soon as she was born – yellow eyes and swollen limbs – and was admitted to hospital for two weeks. I didn’t know what was ailing her until she was diagnosed with sickle cell anaemia,” said Ms Simiyu, a mother of four.
Her daughter was in and out of school, with frequent and financially-draining hospital visits due to the disease, and suffered dismal performance as a result. When the girl’s teacher recommended that she seek help from Mr Ndura, the herbalist in Kitale, Ms Simiyu was reluctant, but decided to give it a try a year and a half ago.
“She has not been in hospital since then, and her condition has improved significantly. She doesn’t go for as many injections as before and she even has energy to play,” Ms Simiyu explained, and called her playful daughter so that we could see that her eyes no longer had a yellowish hue.
A study by Boniface Ndura and researchers from Kirinyaga University, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Kenya Bureau of Standards and Mount Kenya University, published in the Journal of Medicinal Plants Studies, found that Capparis tomentosa works in the management of diabetes.
The researchers were investigating the plant’s safety, antioxidant activity and antidiabetic efficacy, and found that extracts from roots of the plant “display dose-dependent hypoglycaemic activity that is significantly higher than that of the reference drug Glibenclamide.”
“Herbal medicines are preferred in the management of diabetes since they can target multiple mechanisms, including enhancement of insulin sensitivity, stimulation of insulin secretion, and reduction of carbohydrate absorption. They also target inhibition of protein glycation and polyol pathway and inhibition of protein of oxidative stress.
“This contrasts with Western medicine which usually contains a single active ingredient that targets a specific mechanism,” they reported in the journal, adding that the aqueous root extracts of the plant did not contain any toxic chemical compound or mineral element.
However, even as research on the herbal remedy heats up, the Center for International Trade on Endangered Species (CITES) says the plant is likely to be lost unless stringent measures are put in place to safeguard it from unsustainable exploitation.
Before then, Mr Ndura, who has propagated the plant’s seeds so that he can help more patients, hopes that scientists from various institutions can study the plant and shed more light on the science behind it.
“It works! My patients are proof.”
40,000 Number of traditional healers including herbalists, birth attendants, bone setters and faith healers in Kenya in 2011
2 out of 3 Kenyans depend on traditional medicine for their primary healthcare needs
3 out of 4 plant-derived drugs in the world were discovered through scientific investigation of traditional medicine
264: Estimated plants species are used by herbalists across Kenya
Important plant-derived medicines
Quinine - Malaria
Aspirin – pain reliever
Digitalis – congestive heart failure
Artemeter lumefantrine – Malaria
Diseases commonly treated by herbalists in Kenya
Malaria – 54 plants
Colds – 55 plants
Stomach ache – 76 plants
Worms – 46 plants
Typhoid – 36 plants
STIs – 34 plants
Diarrhoea – 33 plants
Arthritis – 33 plants
Ulcers – 26 plants
Asthma – 18 plants
Azadirachta Indica (neem tree) – Malaria
Prunus Africana (African plum tree) – enlarged prostate gland
Warburgia Ugandensis – antimicrobial, painkiller, treats 12 symptoms
Carissa spinarum – purgative, treats 5 symptoms
Aloe secundiflora – malaria and nine other conditions
Erythrina abyssinica – stomachache, toothache and 29 other conditions
Tylosema fassoglensis – gastrointestinal and urinary problems and 8 other conditions
Toddalia asiatica - stomach problems and malaria and 3 other symptoms
Harrisonia abyssinica– stomach problems including diarrhea and 6 other conditions
Commonly-used parts of plants
Roots – 38%
Leaves – 28%
Bark – 22%
1910 – Colonial Medical Practitioners and Dentists Ordinance prefers tolerance to traditional medicine with limitations
1978 – WHO Alma Ata Declaration recognizes role of traditional medicine in primary healthcare
1984 – Traditional Medicines and Drugs Research Centre established at the Kenya Medical Research Institute
2002 – WHO prepares the first WHO Traditional Medicine Strategy
2003 – First annual African Traditional Medicine Day is held
2005 – National Policy on Traditional Medicine and Plants is drafted
2014 – Traditional Health Practitioners Bill is proposed to regulate herbalists
2017 – Health Act that puts traditional medicine under Ministry of Health signed into law
Compiled by: Felista Wangari. Sources: WHO Traditional Medicine Strategy 2014 – 2030, World Bank, Pan African Medical Journal, National Council for Population and Development. Design by: Mike Mosota.