“Plant medicines have been used by humans for millennia – generations reaching back to the origins of the human species. If they weren’t effective, we wouldn’t be here today.” – Dr. Beatrice Odongkara
Smiling, Dr. Beatrice Odongkara, comfortably stands with a foot in two vastly separate worlds: traditional Acholi medicine and western scientific medicine. Dr. Beatrice is an endocrinologist with a speciality in Pediatrics and child health, Department head of Pediatrics at the faculty of Medicine, Gulu University, and runs a private clinic called St. Veronica’s in Gulu, Uganda. She is currently conducting her PhD research through Bergen and Makerere Universities on premature birth and infant survival. She’s a founding member of the Wise Women Uganda association of traditional healers, where she serves as the technical advisor on integrative medicine, and is cousin to the group’s president, Juliet Adoch.
Dr. Beatrice Odongkara
Beatrice’s view is not an isolated vision. The world over, herbal and traditional medicine practices are in rising demand. Recognizing the increasing importance of traditional medicine in public health, the World Health Organization released the WHO Traditional Medicine Strategy for 2014-2023 (1). The goal is to foster the appropriate integration of these affordable, accessible, and culturally appropriate medicines; particularly relevant for the more than 60% of the Ugandan population that rely exclusively on traditional medicine (2).
Integrative medicine is at the nexus of powerful currents between the global and the local; bridging vastly differing worldviews and epistemologies in service of greater health. Traditional medicine knowledge among the Acholi people of Northern Uganda is based around the use of herbal medicines, rituals and ceremonies to treat all manner of physical, mental and spiritual maladies. Knowledge of the use of herbal plants in Acholiland is passed on through several means. The great knowledge accumulated over years of practice and service by elders may be passed to their grandchildren on long walks through the bush. Healers may share their practice in the use of certain plants with other healers. Most intriguingly, healers form direct relationships with the plants, learning to treat their patients through information communicated in dreams or visions.
A healer may work with just a handful of plants or any of the hundreds of native species that the abundant landscape provides. Below are three emblematic trees that I feel blessed to have begun to form relationships with. Sharing this deeper understanding of the plants and their uses of Acholiland is an invitation to reconnect with the bounty of Earth and the ancestral knowledge of our role as stewards on the planet.
Ethnobotanical notes on Acholi plant medicines
Lacoro: Erythrina abyssinica – Fabaceae Papilionoideae
(Lacoro Tree) Feeding Rainbow Lorikeet by Elsa Norden – https://www.flickr.com/photos/elsanorden/11602694705/
Striking flame-red bursts of flowers, like little torches held aloft each swooping branch welcome hungry bees in need of nectar at the height of the dry season. Lacoro (pronounced ‘la choro’, Erythrina abyssinica, Fabaceae) is an emblematic tree of Acholiland, dropping its leaves and proudly extending its flowers each year from November to March. A robust, fast growing tree, it is commonly used to create living fences by simply inserting thick live stakes into ground. A relative of peas and beans, this tree generously fixes nitrogen from the atmosphere, enriching the soil around it for the benefit of all plants in its vicinity. The tree has a tough corky bark, allowing it to easily resist the common fires that sweep through the area. This bark is sometimes used to keep fishnets floating. While Lacoro has a hard, relatively fast growing wood, it is not used for making fires or charcoal because it is believed to invite lightning strikes to the home. The timber is used in a wide variety of applications, from house construction to tool handles, beehives, stools, and drums.
The bark and the roots are pounded in large wooden mortar and pestles for its medicinal application. It is traditionally used to treat malaria, as well as gastrointestinal parasites. Roasted and powdered the bark is used to treat external skin conditions, such as burns, ulcers and swelling. Even the beautiful flower is used medicinally – it can help to treat dysentery as well as earaches. One Wise Woman shared her favorite use of Lacoro (accompanied by a chorus of belly-laughs) to treat male impotence.
The first workshop held in collaboration between WildFF and Wise Women Uganda in February of 2015 was under the protective shade of a Lacoro tree, blessing us with its brilliant beauty. From this humble beginning we hope to begin to recover the benefits of the Lacoro, bringing this generous healing tree back to the landscape.
Lacoro seedlings in the Wise Women Nursery
Lavoori: Vernonia amygdalina – Asteraceae
The Lavoori (pronounced ‘la vurry’, Vernonia amygdalina, Asteraceae) bush is a large shrub covered in dense leaves with a slightly asperous or sand-paper texture. At the ends of the branches, little bunches of bright white and yellow flowers emerge, inviting bees to pollinate and collect it’s bitter nectar. Lavoori is known in English as ‘Bitter leaf’, for its marked bitter flavor. The leaves are eaten in soups and stews throughout large areas of equatorial Africa. It is an extremely versatile tree, with use as firewood, live fencing, soil conservation and even commonly used as a toothbrush! In Acholi culture, the leaves are used as a soap for cleaning saucepans and jeri-cans.
While western interest in the medicinal uses of Lavoori were aroused by observation of a sick wild chimpanzee ingesting the leaves and recovering, traditional use of the plant extends back many generations further. It is celebrated for it’s amazing anti-malarial uses, commonly referred to as the African Cinchona, after the quinine tree of the Amazon (Cinchona sp. Rubiaceae). Lavoori treats both the symptoms of hellish fever and the underlying cause, attacking the plasmodium parasite. The bitter-tasting compounds are also used generally against parasites. One delicious form of the medicine is in the bitter-sweet honey that bees with access to Lavoori produce. To add to the list of impressive medicinal qualities, Ijeh & Ejike (2011) recorded anti-tumor and anti-oxidant properties, anti-diabetic activity, and even reducing bleeding during childbirth. Typically the leaves, roots and bark are employed in medicinal teas. Following the February 2015 training in herbal medicine preparation that brought together the Wise Women and WildFF, the use of Lavoori tinctures is becoming increasingly common as a way of extending the shelf life of this generous plant.
Oput: Psuedocedrela kotschyi – Meliaceae
Oput Tree, Photo courtesy of Prelude Medicinal Plants Database
There is perhaps no single tree more vital in the great work of healing from the brutal civil war that has raged throughout Acholiland for over twenty years. The Oput tree (pronounced ‘Oh foot’, Psuedocedrela kotschyi, Meliaceae) is central to the ceremony of Mato Oput, or the atonement for killing of a human life. All life is considered deeply sacred by the Acholi, and this transgression against the divine is considered to invite evil spirits into the lives of both the communities of the perpetrator and the victim. The ceremony involves symbolic exchanges between communities and elders emphasize the importance of reconciliation in ritualized orations. Finally the murderer and the next of kin kneel together to drink a maceration of pounded Oput roots from a shared gourd, to signify their forgiveness and acceptance of responsibility. The understanding of justice is thus restorative: peace and acceptance over retribution. These ceremonies have played a fundamental role in reknitting the social fabric after decades of war, often as an re-initiation into community life for returning child soldiers .
Oput grows as a medium sized tree, averaging around 12m in height, and is a popularly used timber source. It is very fire resistant, withstanding annual burns and resprouting vigorously from roots. The leaves of the tree provide copious amounts of organic matter, enriching the soil. It is used for firewood, charcoal production, fine timber, poles in construction and as a welcome respite from the hot equatorial sun.
In addition to its ceremonial use in Mato Oput, the Oput tree provides a number of important medicinal uses. Internally, it is used to treat fever, stomach-aches, dysentery, and as an anti-parasitic. Externally, it is used to treat leprosy, sores, rheumatism, swelling, and even as a dressing to help the healing of bone fractures. It is traditionally sprinkled around home compounds for protection, and added to drinking pots of those falling sick.
These three emblematic Acholi tree species are just the tip of the iceberg of the myriad medicinal trees and shrubs that the Acholi landscape offers. The use of medicinal plants is not only an effective and safe method of healing, it has deeper ethical implications. Rooted in the traditional understanding and use of these plants is a powerful concept: humans as members of the greater community of living things. Plant medicines thus offer healing at multiple modalities – the physical and emotional levels, but also at the societal level. As we step into the role of stewards, responsible and active members of the greater community of life, bringing these healing trees to the land is a fundamental first step.
(1) Organization, W. H. (2013). WHO Traditional Medicine Strategy 2014 – 2023. <http://www.who.int/medicines/areas/traditional/en/>
(2) Nyanzi, H. Z., Uganda, C. C. F. of, & Laboratory, N. C. R. (2008). Promoting Herbal Medicine in Uganda. COMPAS, 1–8.
4) Ijeh II; Ejike CECC (2011). “Current perspectives on the medicinal potential of Vernonia amygdalina Del”. J Med Plant Res 5 (7): 1051–1061.