Poisonous Plants Used in Folkloric Homicidal Medicine

Amare Getahun

Amare Getahun

Among natives of various countries, a knowledge of medicine has been passed by word of mouth from one generation to the next by priests, witch doctors or medicine men. This is no less true in Ethiopia where written records in this field are almost absent even though the country has had a written language for over two thousand years. The method is crude and highly conducive to distortion in an area where much accuracy is needed. Some of the lore is lost at each point of transfer or otherwise modified and thereby becomes erroneous and dangerous to use. In addition, witch doctors, to safeguard their interests and win the respect of the inflicted masses, usually compose a long and impressive list of curative herbs for a particular disease when they know that it is only one of those listed that causes a cure. This is also done to fence out or discourage others from becoming herbal doctors if they are forced to tell the secret. For the same reasons, the plants comprising the remedy are selected from different ecological locations such as alpine, highlands, or lowlands; thus rendering it more difficult to accurately duplicate the ingredients. This means that even if one knew and had the list of the alleged curative herbs, he would not necessarily be able to become a practising witch doctor.

More fascinating is the belief witch doctors have been able to implant into the minds of many that the healing power of the plant loses its curative and healing virtues should the secret (that is, the name) of the plant and its alleged use, be disclosed. The informant is also thought to be subject to misfortune and bad luck and a life full of uncertainty. This has meant that a witch doctor will be hesitant to pass on his knowledge and, as a rule, will not pass on his knowledge of medicine to anyone except his offspring, and even then only as he nears death. In medicine, it is the first-born son that is entrusted with the secrets. If he is found unworthy of the trust and is believed to talk too freely and is careless about his ways, then another member of the family is considered. At any rate, whoever merits the honour, is sworn to keep the secret with due care throughout his life and only pass it on in a similar manner. Having given his solemn oath, he is then taken to all the places, near and far, where the plants are known to grow. Should this not be possible, he is given verbal directions and descriptions of the plants and their localities. Thus at each point or act of transfer, secrecy becomes more and more binding and cloaked in mystery. As with the herbalists of sixteenth-century Europe, bizarre stories, legends and beliefs developed in Ethiopia; astrological implications became commonplace and were incorporated quite freely as part of the cure. The gathering of the medicinal herbs, their preparation and administration to the patient are still astrologically determined in many cases. Advocating or implementing such practices as the wearing of a specific grass around one’s neck to dispel meningitis, or applying lard from a snake to an infected organ as a cure against elephantiasis are seemingly unfounded practices.

It is difficult to determine, much less assess, the role of the native medicine man in a given community. Sometimes he has no other profession. Sometimes priests, students of the church, and farmers are doctors as the need arises. It is always men who take up the art, though many women possess the knowledge. A medicine man does not, as a rule, collect a flat fee for his services. A small and voluntary payment is sometimes made by the patient’s immediate family or by the patient himself as a token of friendship and as an expression of gratitude. A more substantial reward is oftentimes made by the patient after his complete recovery.

The sick invariably go to the medicine man at a late stage of the illness; they may turn still later to the modern man of medicine. Many die needlessly when disease strikes because of the ignorance which is translated into negligence and indifference. It is not an unfounded assumption that many seem to think that they may offend God if they should look for a cure other than from His own Hands.

The art of preparing and administering poisons is equally as rich in lore as more conventional medicine. Ethiopians possess an extensive knowledge of poisonous plants and the art of preparing poisons from diverse sources. Poisonous preparations applied to weapons were probably first used for hunting game, and arrow poisons are common in East, Central and West Africa. A number of plants are used in Ethiopia in the preparation of poison arrows, i.e. Acokanthera schimperiana, Adenium obesum, Adenium somalense, Cassia, Crotalaria retusa, Euphorbia, Securidaca longepedunculata, Tephrosia vogelii. Nowadays, poison preparations are used more for homicidal purposes than for hunting game animals. Homicidal poisoning is quite prevalent in the northern provinces. Its common occurrence is well borne out by the standard custom in this region where a host irrespective of the closeness of kin, serving a drink or food, must first consume or taste some before serving the guest. In the case of drinks, the host spills some on the cupped palm of the hand and drinks it in front of the guest to establish good faith.

It is difficult to explain why Ethiopia never put any of the medical lore into writing. Only the church may be said to possess records of this nature, but they are unavailable to non-church men. Few accounts have appeared by people who visited or went through the country, notably German, French, English and Italian naturalists or explorers, fragmentary though these reports may be. More recently, American botanists of the United States Department or of Agriculture Research Service have made an extensive collection of native Ethiopian medicinal plants, and from the preliminary screening tests the list of plants showing positive action against cancer has been encouraging. A similar screening program has been developed to test Ethiopian plants by some Institutes of Tropical Medicine in Great Britain. These preliminary efforts will no doubt reveal the need for more work in this line.

No country in Africa enjoys as great a diversification of geology, landforms, soils, and climate as Ethiopia. There are more than forty-five vegetation types where forests, savannas, woodlands, steppes and grasslands comprise 75% of the vegetation cover. As a result, Ethiopia (Somalia and Socotra included) possesses one of the richest floras in Africa, with no less than 7.000 species of Pteridophytes and Spermatophytes. Much of this floristic wealth is reflected in the fact that Ethiopia is one of the primary centres of origin of many of the world’s cultivated crops, e.g., wheat, barley, teff, coffee, peas, okra, sorghum, millets, lentils. The flora is 35% endemic and is an independent floristic region closely allied to the flora of tropical East Africa and Central Africa.

The passion for changing occurs nowhere more theatrically than in Ethiopia — a country wanting to change from stone age to nuclear age overnight. The young generation, a product of an aristocratic educational system, is being weaned away from its immediate family ties and removed from its native environment. This is bringing an almost immediate death to the country’s heritage of rich oral tradition. The introduction of new and improved agricultural practices and crop seeds has also accelerated this process. The collection and recording of the native lore is essential before it is lost. For this reason, the preliminary study to be presented here was undertaken.

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