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Protecting Traditional Medicinal Knowledge In Zimbabwe

The African Potato (Hypoxis Hemeracallidae) was hot in Zimbabwe in 2000. For years it had appeared in some of the street markets in the capital of Harare alongside other muti, like ginger, as a remedy for stomach aches. Who first began marketing it for its “cure-all” effects cannot be known at this late date because all of the local muti merchants started selling it when they saw its increased popularity with Zimbabweans.


At one point, however, being accountable to no one other than impersonal Zimbabwean consumers, the muti merchants began to display another tuber they also called the African Potato. That potato did not possess any of the active healing ingredients of the original. Accusations of fraud and concerns for public safety followed, forcing the president of the Zimbabwe National Association of Traditional Healers Gordon Chavanduka to appear on national television to distinguish between the bogus potato and the curative African Potato. Although Chavanduka did not reveal the full secret of what the African Potato cured, how to prepare it, or in what dosage it was safe to take it, it was evident to most that the potato he identified as the “real” African Potato was powerful. Hence, as a caveat, Chavanduka had to insist that consumers of the African Potato should always consult a traditional healer for their health needs so they could be assured they were given the right plant.


Tradition Facing Outside Pressures


Despite intense interest from pharmaceutical companies, drug legislation agencies, and ethnobotanical sciences in identifying the “right plants” for health and other uses from developing countries, the story of the African Potato reveals that an additional element is significant in preserving biodiversity: identifying the “right individuals” and the “right practices” attached to such plants. In Zimbabwe in particular, individual practitioners provide services based on traditional medicinal knowledge (TMK) of local plants and do not traditionally seek either profit or patent for these medicinal plants’ utility. But because of the weight of international and national agendas that favor novelty and commercial application in intellectual property rights (IPR) legislation, these local individuals may soon be divested of the TMK they maintain and make valuable.


The agenda looming most directly over the future of traditional medicinal practitioners in Zimbabwe is seen in Article 27.3(b) on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) of the World Trade Organization (WTO). While IPR has historically applied only to works of art and/or industrial innovations, the TRIPS article extends exclusive ownership rights to include the products and processes derived from biological substances.1 During the Seattle 2000 meetings of the WTO it was this extension of IPR that became the crux of a split between biodiversity-rich countries wishing to maintain sovereignty over their cultural and biological resources and the industrial countries who were already developing and profiting from those resources. Under section “c” of Article 27.3, however, developing countries and the African Union, including member-nation Zimbabwe, are allowed to develop their unique and separate (Sui generis) protection frameworks that would mediate their comparative advantage in biological diversity. Yet the capacity of individual practitioners to continue servicing their local communities through their cultural practices may remain unmediated and unprotected even in these planned national Sui generislegislations. This is the case especially because both the AU and Zimbabwe’s Sui generis would subsume these individuals into their own state agendas for technological and economic development.


In Zimbabwe this situation will need special attention because two-thirds of the population rely on traditional healers for some portion of their health needs. Indeed, in the rural areas where two-thirds of Zimbabweans live, the healer continues to create and use cultural resources like Bantu languages (Shona, Ndebele, and Tonga) and customs for the local community, which participates, understands, and confirms these resources further. Subsequently, local and agrarian needs and ways of life need to be considered separately from the national agendas to develop the natural substances of TMK for foreign export and/or for metropolitan benefit and development.


TMK Practitioners


A spectrum of individuals use and share TMK in Zimbabwe. However, not all of them need or deserve special protection.2 This is because not all TMK practitioners follow the traditional customs of accessing, using, sharing, keeping, and valuing TMK as a symbolic resource with regard to the needs of the surrounding community, or totem (mutopa) group.


In fact, the only way to gain intimate or first-hand knowledge of TMK is through an intense mentorship with an elder healer, called the n’anga, wherein children, usually kin, are initiated as assistants, called makumbi (Reynolds 1993). During their initiation time, initiates aquire ritual practices related to collecting, preparing, delivering, narrating, and keeping biological substances that have healing power through the healer’s oral tradition and their own hands-on imitation. The early induction into these customary practices is significant cognitively, because the Shona people believe younger individuals are closer to the spirit of the ancestors and are therefore more likely to access and receive their knowledge of them in dreams. The practical side of initiation involves introduction to the physical elements of TMK that can be any of the “parts of plant roots, leaves, bark, stems, fruits, grasses, aloes, seeds, thorns, climbers,” as well as “symbiotic insect-plant growths, as well as any part of an animal and its excretions” (Chavanduka 1997).


The actual Shona3 term used to refer to these substances is mishonga—which translates to mean both “magic” and “medicine” simultaneously. Further, as several anthropologists have concluded, the truth and effectiveness of these natural substances can be drawn out and confirmed in ritual narratives that artfully dance a fine line between a plausible fiction and an unlikely fact. In these rituals, the healer/practitioner wields both natural substances and symbols that allude to powerful historical, ancestral, spiritual, and physical valences. While the symbols and the actual natural substrates are potentially the heritage of all Zimbabweans, the accumulated intuition (or art) in wielding them in distinctive and effective ways is part of the personal magic (mapipi) that each healer can claim as trademark. Indeed, while the actual natural substances, the material culture, and information about medicinal plants properties may be taken away by outsiders, “the TMK practices (hun’anga) cannot be applied for,” says Sub-Headman of Manjolo Communal Lands, Aident Majiki.


TMK Practices


People cannot apply to learn TMK as if applying for a class and TMK cannot be taken away; customary practitioners literally embody it in their practices4, making it inalienable. The actual keeping of this knowledge by a new practitioner begins typically only after the n’anga has died and there is no one else to guide them with the customary practices of TMK anymore. At this point the apprentice undergoes a special process called kusvikiro, dreaming while receiving specific instruction and guidance from the ancestor spirits. In many cases, the spirit that guides apprentices in these dreams is the elder healer themselves. The knowledge the new healer possesses seems to be distinct, latent, and personal—similar to a talent or gift. Indeed, one who has a spirit (shave) on them is viewed with special respect under customary codes. These individuals are also tested by community authorities in their ability to channel the ancestors’ reservoir of culture. “There is a part of African culture that is understood but also a part that no one can know unless you are a mudzimu [ancestor],” said Clayton Gungawo, a Zimbabwean mbira (thumb piano) player. The Shona firmly believe that only those healers who have access to the ancestors also have access to the full repertoire of TMK.


The Heirloom and the Gift


In this regard, TMK is an ancient ancestral heirloom that only particular families and individual custodians possess and are possessed by. Only specific individuals born into a traditional healers’ family or chosen by that healer to be the assistant will possess a full repertoire, understanding, ability to access, and familiarity with all the customary practices associated with TMK.5 Because n’angas call their TMK a “gift from the ancestors” (chipo mudzimu) they are expected to share their knowledge with and heal other people whether these people are able to pay or not, and even if these people are criminals. As is custom then, n’angas are typically expected to be benevolent community servants who, in return, gain symbolic capital and even political status. However, the obligation to share elements of TMK with others can also put some healers in difficult circumstances. For instance, when members of their community and family become scientists, merchants, and politicians who are guided by non-customary codes, healers can end up divesting themselves of their own status and authority. For instance, Ambuya Esther of Chaminikire Village related how scientists from the University of Zimbabwe came to query her about different types of mishonga. They were Zimbabweans and so she shared some of her TMK with them but discovered that they were going to make medicinal capsules of those mishonga. Later she became worried:

If I change the way the mishonga are used, the svikiro—spirits and ancestors—will not be happy and they will not show me the mishonga the next time. The supreme beings will be angry and they do not want to punish people but they can even bring hunger and bad luck of some sorts, thus we need to conserve these traditional herbs. It is not proper for the muti to be changed and used to suit certain other conditions. When they take it from me here I will not have access to this medicine.


Hence, the “way the mishonga is used”—either in a market as a commodity, or as a pill popped for symptomatic cures—is a concern for traditional healers. As Esther said, she will no longer have access to the mishonga. In particular, the access she spoke of is that to the gifts of medicinal knowledge, which would no longer be from the ancestors, but from science and a capsule. In that perception, if derivatives of TMK are taken from healers and used like the African Potato has been, the physical substances will be perceived to be more important than the practitioners who continuously wield, narrate, innovate, negotiate, and create the power of medicinal plants through their practices.


Entitling Practitioners and Practice


At present, Zimbabwe’s legislation for intellectual resources is not written to be a full interface between traditional healers, scientists, merchants, or national and international biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, as is demonstrated by a lawsuit against the University of Lausanne by members of the Zimbabwe National Association of Traditional Healers and the University of Zimbabwe. Although the organizations’ efforts discovered a powerful medicinal plant, the Swartzia madagascarensis, in the end United States pharmaceutical giant Pfizer gained the intellectual property rights (in the form of a patent on the isolate of its active ingredients). While the corporation was viewed by the U.S. Trade and Patent Office (USTPO) as an eligible “individual,” no individual healer, group, or university had a parallel or equally powerful body like the USTPO to apply to for protection and recognition of traditional medicinal knowledge. This situation was partly due to a bias against common or collective knowledge that cannot be conceived as private, a requisite for protection. TMK is also rarely packaged as “commercially applicable” (with an exception of muti merchants who sell medicinal plants in the markets around Zimbabwe). But the crux of the issue for most customary authorities like the healers is not whether they conform to the Western legal system or standards for protection but whether such conformity should be necessary. Most n’angas and other cultural authorities remain typically resistant to the commercialization of TMK. “Traditionally, long back, the whole thing [TMK] was not supposed to be commercialized,” said the sub-chief (subuku) of Tilbury Estates. “But because of changing times it is happening. That ultimately, traditionally, I’m saying is not appropriate. This thing of healing and all those things do not really come out of your own initiative. There are resident spirits, masvikiro, who are on you and they do not really like to be commercialized.”


Nonetheless, the pressures to commercialize aspects of TMK are present, along with pressure to detach the natural plant substances from all the TMK customary practices—such as its preparation as poultice, soups, powders, bracelets, charms, teas, baths, and other “raw” formats. The technological trick of isolating the active ingredients of the plant, in fact, disguises the fact that an appropriation occurred and makes it appear as if the plant itself yielded its healing secrets and properties rather than a traditional practitioner who provides services with those plants. In this way, intellectual property rights for biological processes and/or products neglect the a priori contribution of traditional knowledge holders who maintain TMK as a cultural resource that accesses and creates the value (worth or utility) of biological substances. IPR only protects exclusive “derivatives” of cultural resources.


Cultural rights, on the other hand, are currently delineated under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) to protect the capacity to reproduce culture. Yet presently this legislation has few international signatories and little weight by comparison to the World Trade Organization, which enforces sanctions on the violators of its articles. As a result, the only salient way for Zimbabwe to adequately value and protect both its biodiversity and cultural resources is to value first the customary custodians of these resources and create special entitlements for them. The entitlements should apply specifically for traditional healers.


Ideally, such entitlements would combine promotion efforts and protection efforts that recognize sovereignty of these resources. Such language is already being used in the national Sui generis legislation of such countries as Bangladesh. But the African Union and Zimbabwe still need to shed the colonial legacy that demonized traditional healers as “witches” or “witchdoctors.”


While the last meeting of WTO in Cancun, Mexico, resulted in a stalemate in progress toward “institutional reforms” of the biodiversity-rich countries that are expected to cohere with legislation of the industrial countries, the African Union’s plan to reclaim both traditional knowledge and regional biodiversity as African national patrimony in national Sui Generis legislation is still threatened by global conservation and development agendas that see these resources as part of a “global commons.” Even if the African Union and Zimbabwe do succeed in cordoning off these resources from the unlimited and unsanctioned access of industrial countries, biological and cultural resources cannot ultimately be “preserved” if they are not also kept alive and reproduced within traditional cultural practices that access, keep, use, and share the biodiversity in ways that ensure its value, power, and utility are maintained, if not furthered for the future.


1. In the information economy, in fact, the product or process is not always extracted from a biological substance directly, but more often, from the embodied traditional knowledge (or cultural resource) of a practitioner who has intimate relationships with natural substances. See Frommer (2001).


2. In my research, The Cultural Right to Practice Traditional Medicinal Knowledge in Zimbabwe ( I document how different types of practitioners, who I call “agents of separation” can gain benefits and protections as members of a mercenary, scientific, and/or unionized institution.


3. Shona is one of the National languages of Zimbabwe. It is a Bantu linguistic tradition which possesses four regional dialects—Kore Kore, Zezuru, Ndau, and Karanga (Chiwome 1993). Ndebele is the other national language of Zimbabwe, although the Ndebele tradition (linguistic and practice) is more related to Zulu heritage centered further South (Carniege 1970; Selby 1971).


4. The “practices” of TMK are very diverse. Indeed, in my own research I found categories of TMK utility and specialty to include distinct mishonga and ritual for childbirth and reproduction; environmental and agricultural problems; everyday illnesses; family or totem strength; virility, “luck” and strength enhancers; protective charms; and larger afflictions or problems dealing with wider social problems.


5. This is important to note because many believe traditional and indigenous knowledge is “common” knowledge. Yet to be consecrated with a possession of TMK in a Shona conception one must be able to both access the vadzimu and demonstrate both a technical repertoire of practices (hun’anga) as well as personal intuition, flexibility, innovation, and a profound sense of appropriate timing (mapipi). This is impossible for the average rural or urban Zimbabwean without them having had a mentorship with an elder n’anga or the recognition of it as a gift (chipo) of some shave or vadzimu.


Chloe Frommer ( completed this research with auspices from the graduate anthropology department of McGill University in Montreal; the Centre for Society, Technology, and Development; the Centre for Developing Area Studies; the University of Zimbabwe; and Dr. Emmanuel Mudhliwa Chiwome. She intends to continue advocacy for distinctive cultural rights through both documentary and participatory research and popular education methods.


References and further reading


African Union (2001). African Model Legislation for the Protection of the Rights of Local Communities, Farmers and Breeders and for the Regulation of Access to Biological Resources. Manuscript: African Model.


Biotechnology Trust of Zimbabwe (2001, September 4-5). The National Workshop on Intellectual Property Rights for Biotechnology. St. Lucia Park, Zimbabwe.


Chavanduka, G.L (1997). Traditional Medicine in Modern Zimbabwe. Harare: University of Zimbabwe Publications.


The International Union for Conservation and Nature and the Food and Agricultural Organization. (2001). Intellectual Property Rights and Genetic Resources: Guidelines for Developing Sui Generis National Policies and Legislation to Promote Community and Farmers' Interests for Southern Africa. Switzerland: Chitsike L.T.


Mushita, A.T. (2001, September 4-5). Case Study: UZ vs Lausanne University for the Medicinal Plant, Swartzia Madagascariensis. National Workshop on Intellectual Property Rights for Biotechnology. Harare, Zimbabwe: Biotechnology Trust of Zimbabwe.


Reynolds, P. (1996). Traditional Healers and Childhood in Zimbabwe. Athens: Ohio University Press.


Frommer, C. (2002). The Cultural Right to Reproduce Traditional Medicinal Knowledge in Zimbabwe. Montreal, Canada: McGill Library Anthropology Theses.


Wyneberg, R. (2000). Privatising the Means for Survival: The Commercialization of Africa's Biodiversity. Global Trade and Biodiversity in Conflict 5. http.www.grain.or/publications/gtbc/issue5.htm.

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