The Fight to Save Traditional Medicine in São Tomé and Príncipe

Diversity on the table. Rural area of S. João, São João of Angolares, São Tomé e Principe. Photo by Maria Cartas on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Diversity on the table. Rural area of S. João, São João of Angolares, São Tomé e Principe. Photo by Maria Cartas on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

[All links lead to Portuguese-language pages unless otherwise noted.]

It is still through the use of traditional medicine that nearly 80 percent of the population of developing countries ensures its citizens’ primary health care, according [en] to the World Health Organization, which established Traditional African Medicine Day on August 31, 2003. In São Tomé and Príncipe, the use of medicinal plants as a resource to cure various illnesses and diseases is no exception.

The second smallest country in Africa after Seychelles, is considered the “el dorado” by many international researchers, recognized worldwide as one of the major African hot spots of biodiversity [en], with at least 148 species of plants exclusive to its location.

With an immense natural richness, great importance is given to the medicinal plants on the islands instead of the industrialized medications, forging the individual uses of the latter.  

The viability of the therapeutic benefits of commonly used plants has already been proven by researchers that were in the region, such as Maria do Céu Madureira, who in the last few years has been one of the prominent faces in the collection, sensitization, and the spread (with the proper credits) of the intellectual richness still relevant in the islands.

Scientific facts and traditional recipes about the use of multiple plants were published in a book (PDF), with the coordination of a researcher in the fields of pharmacology and ethnobotany, titled “Estudo Etnofarmacológico de Plantas Medicinais de S. Tomé e Príncipe” (Ethnopharmalogical Study of Medicinal Plants of S. Tomé and Príncipe).

In an article about “Plantas Medicinais e Medicina Tradicional de S. Tomé e Príncipe” (Medicinal Plants and Traditional Medicine of S. Tomé e Príncipe) (PDF, 2012), available in the repository of the Center of African Studies of the University Institute of Lisbon (ISCTE-IUL), Maria do Céu Madureira affirms:

Em S. Tomé e Príncipe um grande número de medicamentos derivados de plantas
tem sido utilizado desde há séculos pela medicina tradicional.  De facto, há muitos locais em que é praticamente inexistente, ou mesmo nula a prática de medicina ocidental… Aqui, a medicina tradicional reveste-se de uma importância decisiva, já que é, por vezes, a única alternativa terapêutica a que as populações podem ter acesso.

In S. Tomé and Príncipe, a large number of medications are derived from plants that have been used for centuries in traditional medicine. In fact, there are many places in which Western medicine is practically nonexistent, or at least invalid… Here, traditional medicine is especially important, since sometimes it is the only therapeutic option that populations can access.

Sun Pontes and Maria do Céu Madureira at the first TEDx São Tomé conference, 06/20/2013. (used with permission)

Sun Pontes and Maria do Céu Madureira at the first TEDx São Tomé conference, 06/20/2013. Used with permission.

Those who possess profound knowledge about the subject are traditional therapists, usually known by various local terms such as “tchiladô ventosa” (applier of suction cups), “stlijon mato”, (surgeon of the forest), or “patlela” (traditional midwife). These people, almost all centenarians (except for some rare exceptions), are the carriers of knowledge that was passed down to them by their ancestors through oral transmission, and today are numerically in extinction.

At the beginning of August, Global Voices reported on the documentary project Soya Kutu (Short Histories) that has produced short animated features involving a set of “traditional doctors”, children, and young people. The short videos tell stories about medicinal plants and their traditional uses, giving value to the cultural references with which they are associated.

One example is the most typical dish of the country, Calulu, which contains medicinal herbs with beneficial effects for malaria, colic, roundworms, diarrhea, dysentery, and headaches, among others, as shown in the video “After the day of the Bocado (Mouthful)“:

Young students in a tourism course described their perception of the importance of traditional medicine for the São Tomé and Principe population in a project undertaken for the subject History of Heritage:

Constatamos que a nossa terra está enriquecida de cura para todo o tipo de moléstias e doenças. Desde as mais insignificantes ervas daninhas, até as árvores de grandes portes, constituem uma fonte de remédios para todos os males.

We testify that our land is enriched with remedies for all kinds of sicknesses and diseases. From the most insignificant weeds, to the trees with the largest statures, is constituted a source of remedies for all illnesses.

Alberto, Txiladô-Ventosa (Applier of Suction Cups). Photo by Maria do Céu Madureira in the article "Plantas Medicinais e Medicina Tradicional de S. Tomé e Príncipe (Medicinal Plants and Traditional medicine of S. Tomé e Príncipe) " (used with permission)

Alberto, Txiladô-Ventosa (Applier of Suction Cups). Photo by Maria do Céu Madureira in the article “Plantas Medicinais e Medicina Tradicional de S. Tomé e Príncipe” (Medicinal Plants and Traditional medicine of S. Tomé and Príncipe). Used with permission.

Without neglecting the imminent worry about the loss of this immaterial heritage, they affirmed that “traditional medicine has acquired a significant place in the society of São Tomé and Príncipe” because:

(…) faz parte da crença do povo são-tomense, pois desde há muito tempo que as pessoas acreditam nos tratamentos e nos efeitos da medicina tradicional. Esta crença foi-nos transmitida pelos nossos avós, tornando-se assim, a nossa tradição «quá cú bé mé nu, dona mu cá fé, ele só çá vede, ele só cá buá dá nom» – (o que eu vi minha mãe e minha avó a fazerem, é para mim verdadeiro e melhor para nós)

(…) it is a part of the beliefs of the people of São Tomé and Príncipe, because for a long time people have believed in the treatments and in the effects of traditional medicine. This belief was passed down to us by our grandparents, and thus becoming our tradition «quá cú bé mé nu, dona mu cá fé, ele só çá vede, ele só cá buá dá nom»- (what I saw my mother and my grandmother do, is to me true and the best for us)

According to them, the practice has gradually diminished in the country for various reasons such as the disinterest of newer generations, the refusal of older people to pass on knowledge to the younger ones, and the diminished credibility of traditional medicine in the face of scientific medicine. That's why, they affirmed, “it's necessary to preserve this knowledge, so that it doesn't disappear.”

While many of the curious and foreign specialists continue to make expeditions to São Tomé and Príncipe in search of “traditional doctors” of the islands so that they will share share their knowledge, there are those who criticize the “appropriation of traditional knowledge” for the uses of the pharmaceutical industry. Xavier Muñoz, geographer and president of the Caué-Amigos (Caué- Friends) Association of S.Tomé e Príncipe based in Barcelona, wrote in 2008:

As diferentes espécies de plantas medicinais que escondem os matos húmidos africanos estão a dar dia a dia novas fórmulas de princípios ativos farmacológicos nos laboratórios das grandes multinacionais, que são imediatamente patentados, baixos [sic] marcas industriais e produzidos com os anos a grande escala. Posso concordar que os custos de desenvolvimento dos produtos farmacológicos nessas empresas podem ser altos, mas isso não deveria supôr a apropriação dos direitos sobre a base do conhecimento que é originário muito frequentemente do saber tradicional local.

The different species of medicinal plants hidden in the humid African jungle can produce day-to-day new formulas of active pharmacological elements in huge multinational laboratories, that are immediately patented under industrial brands and produced for years to come on a large scale. I can agree that the costs of development of pharmacological products in these businesses can be high, but this shouldn't mean that ownership rights can be assumed over the basis of knowledge which frequently originates in the traditional location.

He believes that this knowledge should be valued and preserved, as does Brigida Rocha Brito, doctor of African Studies, who appeals for teamwork between the different kinds of knowledge:

 Também defendo que as medicinas tradicionais são de preservar, bem como o conhecimento dos mais velhos. Acredito que este pode vir a ser um excelente trabalho de parceria entre a investigação científica e a sabedoria tradicional de carácter popular.

I also defend that traditional medicine should be preserved, as much as the knowledge of the elderly. I believe that this could come to be an excellent project of partnership between scientific research and popular traditional knowledge.

1 comment

  • activist09

    Bushman’s Secret : filmmaker Rehad Desai travels to the
    Kalahari to investigate global interest in ancient Bushmen knowledge, he
    meets Jan van der Westhuizen, a fascinating Khomani san traditional
    healer. Jan’s struggle to live close to nature is hampered by centuries
    of colonial exploitation. One plant could make all the difference:
    Hoodia, a cactus used by Bushmen for centuries.

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