Celebration Stories in Africa

Ambitious traditional healers celebrate Plant Conservation Day at the Walter Sisulu National Botanical Gardens.

When the Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden’s Biodiversity Education Empowerment (BEE) unit organised a workshop for sangomas (traditional healers) on Tuesday, it least expected that among the attendees would be graduates and employees of other companies.

The workshop was part of the global celebration of Plant Conservation Day, celebrated annually on the 18 May, under the auspices of Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) – a global network of botanical gardens that work towards plant conservation through science, education and horticulture.

South Africa is believed to be the third largest country that has more plant diversity with more than 20 000 plant species occurring naturally. Traditional healing is synonymous with the use of various herbs and plants through spiritual interaction for healing hence it is touted as a calling. 

The attendees ranged from qualified pharmacists to office administrators and teachers and all took time off from their occupations to heed the call they considered “valuable for their calling”. Presented by Rand Water employee, David Dlamini, the workshop dealt with many aspects of traditional medicine healing and how its use impact adversely on plants.

It dealt with topical biodiversity issues ranging from threatened plant species and the effects of global warming to legal approaches of plant collection and the sharing of such significant information among practitioners as well as the correct ways of collecting plants from the wild and their sustainable use.

 The workshop resolved to develop links with other institutions that deal with the same issues of traditional medicine and the conservation of plant species in order to create a coherent process of developing a common “book of knowledge” to help spread the message of conserving plants.

Lack of media resources and handbooks as well as the lack of programmes that guide traditional practitioners to sustain their chosen profession or calling were some of the challenges that were identified. The convener Mandisa Kondlo from SANBI said the workshop was not aimed at preventing sangomas from collecting plants but was geared towards teaching them sustainable methods of collecting plants.

After the presentation the crew took a tour through the Garden and the nursery where they were shown various plants of medicinal use such as the Siphonochilus aethiopicus, Eeucomis autumnalis and the Boophane disticha.  They were also shown propagation methods so that they can grow plants themselves.

Those knowledgeable made an exposition of the various uses of some plants such as the fact that the Boophane disticha is used by “highly spiritual” healers to diagnose problems & foretell people’s future, hence it is commonly known as the mirror or open book (incwadi in local dialect, IsiZulu).

It is hoped that more similar workshops would be held in conjunction with other stakeholders and role-players in the not so distant future with the eventuality of producing a handbook for responsible traditional healing practices.