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Africa Should Combat COVID-19 with Its Indigenous Knowledge Medicine

Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD                                                      May 25, 2020

This article is dedicated to Africa Day, the 57th Anniversary of the establishment of the Organization of African Unity (OAU – now AU)

The Institute of Development and Education for Africa (IDEA) has been compiling data and gathering information in regards to the nature and characteristics of COVID-19, since the outbreak of the deadly corona virus at Wuhan, China in December 2019. Then, the world was not alerted with the consequences of the virus, but it soon engulfed our planet earth and became a global pandemic.

What is COVID-19? How did it come into being? It is a naturally occurring virus or as some conspiracy theorists suggest a man-made virus that apparently escaped from the laboratories or deliberately spread in crowded places in order to infect people?

Whatever the cause and origins of COVID-19, IDEA is interested in primarily understanding the nature and behavior of this pandemic corona virus, and then would like to recommend indigenous knowledge medicine for Africa, and not vaccine given the uncertainties and negative implications of the latter. In the context of indigenous knowledge systems (IKS) and abundant herbal medicine in Africa, thus, IDEA’s investigative discourse entertains various research-based scholarly perspective on COVID-19 and concludes with recommendations that could enable the African continent to counter, combat, and overcome corona-related massive deaths by massively using herbal medicine.

IDEA’s recommendation of the employment of traditional pharmacology, however, should not mean to completely abandon Western or non-Western modern medicines and prescriptions, but only to suggest that at this point in time, Africa would be better off to extensively use its pharmacopeia, which has a healing potential and power for the most part and with rare side effects. In light of this clarification, thus, we at IDEA would like to tell our African audience that there is a wealth of information in health-related disciplines such as Pathology and Cell Biology; Biochemistry and Molecular Bio-Physics; Microbiology and Immunology.

But first, for the sake of clarity, it is important to define indigenous knowledge. Back in 2003, my academic scholar colleagues and I contributed chapters for a book entitled Globalizing Africa, edited by Malinda Smith and published by Africa World Press. In that book, one of the contributors, Catherine A. Adora Hoppers, defined indigenous knowledge as follows:          

The scope of these knowledge [the IKS], are rich and varied, ranging from soil and plant taxonomy, cultural and genetic information, animal husbandry, medicine and pharmacology, ecology, climatology, zoology, music, arts, architecture, and many others. The intrinsic efficiency and efficacy as tools for personal, societal, and global development must, therefore, be identified and accredited as necessary. It is this recovery of indigenous knowledge, and the system intricately woven around them, that will facilitate the move towards a critical but resolute re-appropriation of the practical and cognitive heritage of millions of people across the African continent and elsewhere in the world. It is, in turn, the re-appropriation of this heritage that may provide new clues and directions as to the visions of human society, human relations, sustainable development, poverty reduction, and scientific development in the next millennium, all of which cannot be resolved using the existing ethos of the Western framework alone.       

Our interest in the above quoted source is ‘plant taxonomy’ (more specifically herbal taxonomy), medicine and pharmacology. I will present some traditional African herbal medicine and their use for particular ailments and diseases in the middle of this article, and before I delve into those medicines on behalf of IDEA, I will first present the richness of ancient Egyptian and Ancient Ethiopian medicine and then proceed to the various perspectives on COVID-19. 

Ancient Egyptian and Ancient Ethiopian Medicines

Africa should be very proud of the advanced medicines that she have had in both ancient Egypt and ancient Ethiopia, two African great civilizations; the medical knowledge and pharmacology in both these two civilizations was unparalleled in world history, but unfortunately modern Africa could neither appreciate nor implement the ancient medical knowledge that was indigenous to the continent. I have taught my students at Lehman College, City University of New York about Egyptian and Ethiopian medicines in Ancient Egypt and African Civilizations, and I will present here at least a portion of the lecture series on medicine.

Ancient Egypt was hub of civilization and center of education for northern Africa, the Mediterranean, the Aegean including the Greek Archipelago, and western Asia (present-day Middle East). Famous Greek philosophers like Pythagoras, Plato, Eudoxsos etc were educated in Egypt, and Greek doctors such Melampus, Asclepius, and Hippocrates were also trained in Egypt.

We have ample documentary and archeological evidences on advanced Egyptian medicine, now compiled as Edwin Smith, Elbers, and Berlin papyri. The Edwin Smith, for instance, documents the Middle Kingdom (1980-1630 BCE) Egyptian medical knowledge and practice such as medical examinations of patients followed by diagnosis and prognosis; and the diseases were classified as curable, treatable, and untreatable. The Elbers and Berlin papyri recorded Egyptian anatomy, the vital organs and their locations and functions; Egyptian specialty in gynecology and obstetrics was also documented.

The most fascinating part of Egyptian medicine, however, was the extensive use of herbal and mineral medicine, and here are some of them: honey was widely used for preservation and healing wounds and the Egyptians were aware of the bactericide quality of honey and they even used it in their mummification process; wax, urine, fresh meat were also used to heal wounds; garlic for Asthmatic and was given to those who suffered from bronchial-pulmonary complications; a combination of garlic and olive oil or garlic and vinegar were also used for gargle and rinsing the mouth (I would not mind recommending this for COVID-19 patients at early stage of the disease); powdered cumin; Tannic acid derived from acacia seeds were used for cooling the vessels and healing burns; cannabis; myrrh; frankincense for psychotic disorders and preservation of the dead body (mummification); Fennel (anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-bacteria) was used for many inflammatory ailments; cassia (cinnamon) were prescribed  relieving dates for skin disease and constipation; Sesame (soothes asthma); tamarind, a tropical and antioxidant edible fruit that mostly used for liver infections; yeast and Henna for protecting the hair; Natron (naturally occurring salt) and Mummy etc for preservation. Mummy was used virtually for all kinds of ailments and diseases.

Ethiopian medicine in many ways is very similar to ancient Egyptian medicine except that the Egyptian is well documented and that of Ethiopia is yet to be discovered and become a public knowledge. Otherwise, Ethiopia’s rich medical knowledge and practice is also documented in an ancient Brannna book (folios made out of processed goat skin) entitled Metshafe Fews (መፅሐፈ ፈውስ Geez, literally ‘The Book of Medicine or Book of Healing). Hundreds upon hundreds of copies of the Book of Medicine were duplicated for centuries and catalogued in the “libraries” of the monasteries and churches; some of them are stolen and are in libraries in Europe and North America.     

One important book on Ethiopian traditional medicine in Amharic, authored by Fekadu Fullas entitled የኢትዮጵያ ባህል መድኃኒት በሳይንሳዊ አቀራረብ᎓ የመድኃኒት ዕፀዋት or Ethiopian Traditional Medicine in Scientific Perspective was published in 2002 and reviewed by IDEA. Please use the following link to read the review: www.africanidea.org/EthiopianTraditional_medicine.pdf.This book presents the names, purposes, and results of the various herbal and mineral medicines, and it also offers the names in Amharic, Tigrigna, and Oromo languages. Here, however, we will include a glimpse of the book’s recommended medicinal drugs. Some of them are the following:

Kechemo: it is anti-fever drug; its seeds are immersed in water for one day, and the patient drinks it on the following day

Kokoba: has anti-cancer properties but are mostly used by physically weak people to gain some potency; it is also used for fever; for all of the above, it is the leaves of Kokoba that are used.

Bahir Zaf (Eucalyptus): Its leaves are boiled in hot water and patient covers his/her face with some cloth and inhales the steam evaporating from the Eucalyptus; it is very much like sauna and is extensively used in Ethiopia for relieving the common cold

Garlic is crushed and added to mead, meat, yoghurt, butter, or milk; 2-3 table spoons and 1-10 a day is taken as soup for cough, wound, yellow fever, TB, psychotic disorder, high blood pressure, and liver disease.

Etuch (aka Government Herb): the roots and leaves of this plant are used for relieving and healing stomach ache, diabetes, diarrhea, stomach parasites, respiratory tube problems, and throat sore.

Ginger: is used for fever and influenza by taking the bits through the mouth; for stomach ache, its stem is chewed; and for common cold (cough and running nose), the crushed bits are added to tea and is drunk by the patient.

Similar to Fekadu Fullas, Alevtina Gall and Zerihun Shenkute also came up with “Ethiopian Traditional Medication and their Interaction with Conventional Drugs,” and their work was reviewed by David Kiefer and J. Carey Jackson, and published in 2009

Black Mustard: Senafitch in Amharic (A) and Tigrigna (T) and Senafitcha in Oromo (T) used for stomach ache, constipation, bloating, amoebic dysentery

Black Seed: Tikur Azmud (A), Awoseta (T) and Gura (O) used for headache, stomachache, and abortifacient

Cinnamon: Qarafa (A), Qerefa (T), and Carafu (O) used as culinary and for cold symptoms

Fenugreek: Abish (A), Abaeke (T, my own input) Halbata (O): Its powder is used for wound dressing

Flaxseed and flaxseed oil: Telba (A), Lina/Enta’tie (T), Konfur (O): Its benefits are multipurpose including culinary and for healing stomachaches and constipation; it also enhances heart health, reduces inflammation, and combats early cancerous cells.

Garlic: Nech Shinkurt (A), Tsaeda Shigurti (T), Qullabbiladi (O) is extensively used (as we have seen above) for cough, pulmonary disease, hypertension, wounds, STDs, asthma, parasitic infections, toothache, diabetes, and hemorrhoids

Ginger: Zingibl (A & T) used for stomachache, cough, fever, and influenza

Admasu Moges and Yohannes Moges tell us that “medicinal plants are vital in their use for medication, besides providing ecological, economic, and cultural services. The world primary means of treating diseases and fighting infections have been based on the use of medicinal plants. From ancient times, plants have been sources of effective and safe medicines. Globally, about 64% of the total world population is reliant on traditional medicine for their healthcare needs. The title of their work is Ethiopian Common Medicinal Plants: Their Parts and Uses in Traditional Medicine – Ecology and Quality Control.

The richness of Ethiopian plant medicine discussed by Admasu and Yohannes, is supplanted and reinforced by Endashaw Bekele in his piece entitled Study on Actual Situation of Medicinal Plants in Ethiopia (December 2007). Endashaw states, “Ethiopia is believed to be home for about 6,500 species of higher plants with approximately 12% endemism, and hence one of six plants biodiversity countries of the world (UNEP, 1975). The diversity is also considerable in the lower plants but exact estimate of these have to be made. The genetic diversity contained in the various biotic make up is also high, thus making the country a critical diversity hot spot for plants.”

There is no doubt that the biodiversity of Ethiopia is replicated in many other African countries and a significant number of African communities are engaged in the use of herbal medicine for various ailments and diseases. Ezekwesili –Ofili Josephine, Ozioma and Okaka Antoinette, and Nwamaka Chinube have also contributed a very interesting study entitled Herbal Medicines in African Traditional Medicine (January 30, 2019). The authors argue that “Herbal medicine is the cornerstone of traditional medicine but may include minerals and animal parts…through scientific investigations, these is a better understanding of its therapeutic activities such that many pharmaceuticals have been modeled on phytochemicals derived from it.

They further discuss the various names for the traditional medical practitioners (TMP) with different names across the board in the Continent: Sangoma or Inyanga in South Africa; Akomfo, Bokomwo in Ghana; Niam-Niam, Shaman, or Mugwanu in Tanzania; Nga-Nga in Zambia; and Shaman or Laiban in Kenya; Babalawo, Dibia, or Boka etc in Nigeria.

Ezekwesili et al also enumerate various sources of medicinal herbs and plants:

Roots: fleshy or woody

Rhizomes: woody or fleshy underground stem that grows horizontally and brings out their leaves above the ground; e.g. Zingeber officinale (ginger); imperata cylindrical (spear grass) for potency in men and curcuma longa (turmeric) an anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer drug.

Tuber: e.g. potatoes and yams such as Dioscorea dumetorium (ona – (igbo)) for diabetes and Gloriose Superba for cancer

Bark: outer protective layer of the tree stem or trunk. It contains highly concentrated phytochemicals with profound properties.

Leaves, Stems, and Flowers, Fruits and seeds also contain highly active phytochemicals and essential oils

Gums, Exudates, and Nectars: secretes to deter insects and other grazing animals, and to seal off wounds

On top of the above medicinal plants and herbs, it is important to touch upon the preparation and dosage of the medicines, as the authors discuss and explain in some detail:


Methods of preparation and Dosage:

Extraction: Prepared with solvent on a weight by volume basis

Infusions: Prepared by macerating the crude drug for a short period of time in cold or hot water and preservative such as honey may be added to prevent spoilage  

Decoctions: are made by boiling woody pieces for a specified period of time and filtered. Potash may be added to aid extraction and as preservative.

Tinctures: are alcoholic infusions, which if concentrated may be diluted before administration.

Ashing: the dried parts are incinerated to ash, and then sieved and added as such to water and food.

Miscellaneous:  Liniments (for external application in liquid or semi-liquid substances); lotions (for skin application); snuffs (powdered dried plant inhaled through the nostrils). Dried plants may be burnt and their charcoal is used as such; gruels are cereals/porridges made from grains to which dried powdered plants or its ash is added to be taken orally.   

With the above mentioned wealth of African pharmacopeia, there is no doubt that can successfully combat to contain and defeat COVID-19, but the government policies and practices in the struggle against the novel corona virus should be based on knowledge. At this juncture in African history, African scientists, health professionals, and government leaders should seriously consider the implementation of herbal medicine but they must first have a profound clarity on the nature and characteristics of COVID-19.

Benjamin Neumann, a professor of Biology at the Texas A & M University argues, “COVID-19 is caused by a corona virus called SARS-Cov-2. Corona virus belongs to a group of viruses that infect animals, from peacocks to whales. Plays in two ways: as an infection in the lungs or an infection in the gut that causes diarrhea. SARS-Cov-2 has a totally different set of genes called accessories, which give this new virus a little advantage in specific situations. For instance, MERS has a particular protein that shut down a cell’s ability to sound the alarm about a viral intruder. One way that cells try to respond to infection is by making interferon, the alarm signaling protein. SARS-Cov-2 blocks this by a combination of camouflage, sniffing off protein markers from the cell that serve as distress beacons and finally shredding any anti-viral instructions that the cell makes before they can be used.            

SARS-Cov-2 spreads from person to person by close contact. The Shincheonji Church outbreak in South Korea in Fberuary provides a good demonstration of how and how quickly SARS-Cov-2 spreads.

…the illness caused by the new corona virus, is caused by the immune system carrying out a scorched earth defense to stop the virus from spreading. Millions of the cells from the immune system invade the infected lung tissue and cause massive amount of damage in the process of cleaning out the virus and any infected cells.

When the virus gets first, blood pressure is not regulated; this is one reason COVID-19 is more severe in people with high blood pressure.

At present the transmission rate of SARS-Cov-2 is a little higher than that of the pandemic 2009 H1N1 influenza virus, but SARS-Cov-2 is at least 10 times deadly.

From the data that is available now, COVID-19 seems a lot like severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), though it is less likely that SARS to be severe.

Another unknown is how COVID-19 will respond to changes in the seasons. The flue tends to follow cold weather, both in the northern and southern hemispheres.”

Simon Anthony is a Columbia University epidemiologist and expert on “how viruses move between species.” He says, “that humans pick up these infections in myriad ways: by eating the flesh of wild animals, also called bush meat; by eating fruits and vegetables that have been nibbled on by infected rodents, bats, or birds; by drinking water contaminated by infected animals’ urine or feces. Raising livestock close forests is also a major risk, he says, since domestic animals can catch infection from wild ones and later infect their owners.”

Furthermore, the Columbia University scientists underscore that “in the war between man and microbes, is seems, the germs are making a comeback” and “the numbers tell a sobering story: between 1960 and 2004 alone, 335 new infections diseases emerged, the vast majority caused by viruses or bacteria that spread from animals to people.”

However, unlike Simon Anthony and other Columbia University scientists, Ya Rong Guo et al, writing in springer.com (Military Medical Research) argue that “the exact source of this virus is unknown because rarely animal corona virus can infect people.” in other words, these writers argue, “the complete picture of COVID-19 is not fully known.” In regards to the nature of COVID-19, however, Ya-Rong Guo et al present the same analysis like Benjamin Neumann.

Before I move on into how Africa can effectively combat COVID-19, I will address first some conspiracy theories by some professionals and how the major media in the US and the United Nations responded. In this regard, one of the most controversial conspiracy theorists is Dr. Judy Mikovits, who in her interview with the California filmmaker Mikki Willis said,” wealthy people are intentionally spreading the novel corona virus to increase vaccination rates in the population at large and wearing a mask can actually worsen viral symptoms.”

There are other plethora conspiracy theorists (including the “5-G creating corona virus” group), but as a scholar myself, I have a duty and responsibility to submit to my readers and IDEA subscribers verified, validated, and factual data only. Whether the mainstream media and/or world organizations sincerely share our concern or it is simply counter-attacking the speculators is subject to debate; but we don’t mind presenting their response to the conspiracy theorist groups.

For instance, on April 9, 2020, CNN reported: “Unfounded claims about a supposed link between 5G and COVID-19 began circulating on the fringes of the internet, where New Ageros ad Q Anon followers perpetuated hoax that global elites were using 5G to spread the virus. Unsophisticated algorithms amplified those voices and ushered unsubstantiated theories into the mainstream. There is no evidence to support the theory that 5G networks cause COVID-19 or contribute to its spread. But still, it refuses to die.”

In a similar vein, on April 22, 2020, UN News reported: “COVID-19: 5G broadband conspiracy ‘a hoax with no technical support’, UN Telecom Agency: “The scale of the problem promoted the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN agency which is leading the responses to its COVID-19 myth busters article, which notes that “viruses cannot travel on radio waves mobile networks. COVID-19 is spreading in many countries that do not have 5G mobile networks. In a statement published in February, the WHO notes that, “to date, after much research performed, no adverse health effect has been causally linked with exposure to wireless technologies,” and “provided that the overall exposure remains below international guidelines, no consequences for public health are anticipated.”

What is to be done now? What can Africa do to fight the novel corona virus’ when its “complete clinical picture is unknown”? And to be sure, the world is gripped with non-pharmaceutical interventions and options of social distancing and hand hygiene only; additionally, vaccines and treatments for COVID-19 have yet to be developed. Therefore the best response strategy for Africa is to trust its instinct; Africa’s instinct is embedded in its traditional herbal medicine.

One promising initiative could be Madagascar’s “herbal remedy cure” that the president of the country Andry Rajoelina launched, but its effectiveness has yet to be determined, and with Africa’s huge potential in herbal medicine, it is highly probable that the cure for COVID-19 will be found and patented in the continent.


1.      Catherine A. Adora Hoppers, “Indigenous Knowledge, the African Renaissance, and the Integration of Knowledge Systems,” in Malinda smith, GLOBALIZING AFRICA, Africa World Press, 2003

2.      My lecture notes on Ancient Egyptian and Ancient Ethiopian Medicine

3.      Fekadu Fullas, Ethiopian Traditional Medicine in Scientific Perspective, 2002

4.      Alevtina Gall and Zerihun Shenkute, “Ethiopian Traditional Medication and their Interaction with Conventional Drugs,” 2009

5.      Admasu Moges and Yohannes Moges, “Ethiopian Common Medicinal Plants, Their parts and uses in Traditional Medicine – Ecology and Quality Control”

6.      Edashaw Bekele, “Study on Actual Situation of Medieval Plants in Ethiopia,” December 2007

7.      Ezekwesili – Ofili Josephine et al, “Herbal Medicines in Africa’s Traditional Medicine,” January, 2019

8.      Benjamin Neumann, Professor of Biology, Texas A & M University, ‘On the Causes of COVID-19’

9.      Simon Anthony, “The Virus that Changed the World, Columbia, Columbia University Magazine, Spring/Summer, 2020

10.  Ya Rong Guo et al, www.springer.com

11.  CNN News, April 9, 2020

12.  UN News, April 22, 2020

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