Memories and humble thoughts under the ‘mwarubaini’ tree

Neem leaves

Dried neem tree leaves.

Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • Why did it take so long for the neem-mwarubaini’s benefits to be acknowledged or publicised?
  • The new “discovery” should remind us that the Covid-19 pandemic is nowhere near over.

You may have heard recently that extracts from parts of the neem tree may be effective in the management of the symptoms of Covid-19. That is in the guarded language of scientists, like those at the University of Colorado and the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research. Still, it is good news on many fronts, as we shall see.

I was delighted at the scientists’ “discovery”, but not particularly surprised at it. Indeed, my only element of surprise was that it had taken the famous researchers that long to recognise or acknowledge the precious properties of the neem. We in East Africa, as you know, call the neem “mwarubaini”, the tree of forty cures. In India, the natives praise it as a whole dispensary or chemist’s shop on a single stem.

Before we go further into these indigenous insights, however, let me confess to you a growing weakness in me. As I grow older, and the faculties grow inevitably shakier, I tend to cling on to memories with a compulsive passion. The recent scientific mentions of the neem, for example, triggered “mwarubaini” in my Swahili-conditioned mind, and that inevitably transported me back to my sun-drenched youthful days at the Coast.

The memory line never seems to fade, especially around the sound of the sea and the trees that I associate with those heady times. Under the shadows of the mikorosho, the minazi, the mikoche and the miarubaini, I thought I was fully-grown, yet I was still pathetically impressionable, as I now realise.

Still, the magic remains, linking the years and the decades. My recent mwarubaini readings, for example, reminded me of a time, a few decades ago, when my friend Dr Evans Mugarizi and I were facilitating a language and literature teachers’ workshop in Mombasa.

We stayed at a guesthouse in Likoni, very close to the beach, just across the channel. A lawn below our windows, stretching down to the water’s edge, was dotted with these giant neem trees, and their rustling through the night as a gentle breeze played through them remains one of the most vivid memories of my visit.

New 'discovery'

More recently, I was attending a literature conference at the Pwani University in Kilifi. My hosts booked me a beautiful beachside hotel cottage surrounded by cashew trees and fringed with those “towering” coconut trees that I keep harping on in my verse. Maybe the humorous dons were playing a practical joke on me, but the brief stay rejuvenated me, reconnecting me to my youthful Dar es Salaam days.

Fancies and memories aside, however, wide publication of the positive scientific findings about the neem’s potential in the management of coronavirus infections raised three main considerations in me. The first was why it took so long for the neem-mwarubaini’s benefits to be acknowledged or publicised.

Secondly, it reminded me of what I have been sharing with you all along, that we should not underestimate the potential of indigenous knowledge in the solution of our so-called “modern” problems.

Thirdly and most importantly, the new “discovery” should remind us that the Covid-19 pandemic is nowhere near over, as some of us seem to believe.

Regarding the length of time it has taken us to bring the neem option to the Covid-19 management table, my feeling is that the failure was more cultural and historical than scientific. The neem tree is a very prominent plant in our Indian Ocean area and its therapeutic and curative properties are known among most of the communities where it grows. A common saying among us is that every part of the mwarubaini has medicinal value.

Mwarubaini treasures

If we in East Africa have been rather reticent about the benefits of the mwarubaini, it is not because we did not know about them or believe in them. Indeed, I believe that our indigenous healthcare givers continue to treat our people, often successfully, with herbs like those from the neem. Holding back from self-advertisement was probably because the main guardians of the mwarubaini treasures are the Waswahili and other Coastal peoples.

The coastal cultures seem to have an aversion to ostentation, showing off, and self-advertisement. Their attitude is “chema chajiuza” (a good thing sells itself). Their revulsion towards declarative self-promotion appears in such sayings as “zingwizingwi lipe nguo ulione mashauo” (give an idiot some clothes and you will see how they parade themselves). Our guardians of the neem saw no need for parading themselves, especially in the face of the racist, imperialistic attitudes that seem to dominate current international operations, including scientific research. Do you remember what happened to us when we identified omicron in South Africa?

As they say, however, “the truth will out”. I have been insistent, and even strident, in saying that the people’s indigenous knowledge should not be arrogantly dismissed as backward, primitive, superstitious or savage, as the litany of our supremacist detractors has it. This is particularly important in times of crises like the Covid-19 pandemic. Attention to indigenous resources can and does yield positive results, as evidenced in such breakthroughs as the Ugandan “covidex” formula, now firmly in the hands of healthcare givers.

Finally, the conversation about new and innovative additions to the arsenal against Covid-19 should remind us that the pandemic is still with us. Mercifully, observation of the stringent health measures in place at the height of the pandemic and interventions like the widespread vaccinations have led to the lifting of most restrictions on our lives. This, however, does not mean the end of Covid-19. Indeed, there are many places where it is on the rise.

The nature of the world information order has knocked Covid-19 off its headline status, replacing it with concerns like the Russia-Ukraine war. But we should not let our guard, or our masks, down. In any case, we should keep ourselves actively informed of all potential weapons in fighting the monster.

Say “jambo” to a mwarubaini when you next see one.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and [email protected]

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