Bridging the gap between academic science and traditional healing is a ticklish but critical task. Many of the remedies used by herbalists and the people themselves are widely used and apparently useful, but the active ingredients are largely unknown.
“Our people have survived for centuries without modern medicine,” said Dr. Stephen Kiama, associate dean of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Nairobi and director of the AFNNET node there. “We need to come back to their roots, and these are their traditional remedies. It’s a matter of urgency that brought us into this research. We cannot go on doing studies that are disconnected from what the people are doing and what they need.”
One of the biggest challenges for academic scientists is to win the trust of the traditional healers, many of whom are suspicious that these big-city scientists will make off with their secrets and reap big profits. All of the AFNNET members have worked patiently to counter these suspicions, and to make the case that a partnership can benefit both camps. In fact, many of the herbalists do want to know what is in their products and welcome opportunities to package and market them to a wider clientele.
In addition to the task of diplomacy faced by the scientists is the equally daunting challenge of finding and reaching the herbalists, most of whom live in remote areas that have poor roads and limited security. Several months ago Dr. Kiama and two colleagues were driving an SUV toward a major meeting with herbalists in the remote town of Maralal, some 450 miles north of Nairobi, when they nearly lost their lives in an ambush. Their lone vehicle was speeding along an unpaved road when it was suddenly riddled by automatic rifle fire and overturned. Bandits, who had fired the shots, began to close in on the vehicle, with every apparent intention of killing and robbing its occupants. Luckily, another vehicle came along, sending the bandits back into the bush.
The scientists were not hit by bullets, but Dr. Kiama’s arm was severely broken during the crash. He was airlifted by helicopter back to Nairobi, while his colleagues, who were unhurt, managed to complete their journey and attend the meeting without him. Fortunately for all, the meeting was successful and laid the groundwork for more detailed collaboration.
As for Dr. Kiama, the details of his adventure quickly became known around Nairobi and soon he was telling his story on TV – looking somewhat the worse for wear.