Ron Swilling ventures into Bushmanland, where the Nama’s ancient plant medicines and remedies are revealed. Meet the bossiedokters of the veld…
I followed the two bossiedokters (bush doctors) through the Bushmanland veld that was liberally dotted with spiny devil’s claw plants. Quiver trees showed off their yellow flowers and two Black Eagles circled above the hills, searching for dassies. Perhaps they were just celebrating life.
We had arrived at Soverby, on the outskirts of Keimoes in the Northern Cape, to be told that our plant lesson would take place outdoors. “Into the veld,” the ‘bush doctors’ chorused as they shut the house door behind them.
The two sisters-in-law, Nella Finnies and Elsa Isaks, share an unwavering belief in plant medicine and the traditional Nama remedies passed down from their mothers, and their mothers’ mothers. Now Nella and Elsa are keeping the knowledge alive, and the remedies integral to the home and the culture.
As the day warmed, we searched the red Kalahari sand for earthy treasures. Besides looking for several medicinal plants, including kloudoring (devil’s claw) that I was told is used for “vroue en koue” (women and colds) and for almost everything else it would appear, we were also hoping to find some !nabas (Kalahari truffles), “lekker veldkos” (delicious veld food) to take home for supper.
“Keep a lookout for horned adders,” warned Nella, as we treaded carefully through the sand. “They blend very well into this environment.” Slowly we moved forward, identifying porcupine and bokkie tracks in the sand, swatting miggies that buzzed around our faces, and discovering hoodia, the plant well known for its appetite-suppressant properties. “And this is verkouebos [a bush to treat colds],” said Elsa. “And this a slangneusbossie [snake-nosed bush]. Its leaves are used to clean out the system.”
But the morning seemed to revolve around devil’s claw, known as kamaqu (or gamaku, kamangu or kanako) in the local Nama language. This was ideal kamaqu territory and, although the thorny fruits look menacing and have a tendency to ferociously hook on to anything that comes into their path, their secondary tubers are harvested for medicine. “They are dug out, cut, dried and threaded through a wire or string and kept for when needed,” Nella told me. “Then they are ground into a fine powder, which is a medicine for nearly everything.”
Elsa told me how she had fallen off the back of a bakkie when she was a child and had suffered from all kinds of aches and illnesses throughout her life, including the usual ones like high blood pressure and heart problems. Although she receives medication from the clinic, she supplements it with plant medicine.
“It is this that has kept me healthy,” she stated. “I am 71 years old and have survived all my 11 brothers and sisters.” Elsa pointed out bushes and tracks in the sand, and excitedly added a piece of verkouebos to her plastic bag for later use.
My introduction to Nama remedies had begun a few days before in Riemvasmaak, with a well-known bossiedokter in the Gordonia district, as it is still called by many. Known as Mammietjie, Mevrou Damara picked plants from her garden and, once back in her living room, held them up one by one as she described their usage, also adding anecdotal cases studies about people they had helped.
I had been told beforehand that you had to finish all your work for the day before visiting Mammietjie. She enjoyed spinning a yarn so much you could end up staying for breakfast, lunch and supper. Indeed. Our extended medicinal plant lesson included a history lesson and a needlework display.
Sutherlandia, the first plant Mammietjie showed us, is becoming increasingly familiar to those with an interest in natural medicine. It’s also known as kankerbos (cancer bush), or kalkoenbos as the Riemvasmakers call it, for its flower that looks like a chicken’s head. “It’s also used for stomach complaints and colds, but it’s very bitter,” Mammietjie told us, before holding up a kamaqu, and then a plant we all could identify, a type of vygie. “Here it’s called hotnotsvy and it’s used for sore throats, any mouth problems and even eczema.”
Next up was bulbinella, which we learnt is an excellent salve for cuts and abrasions. “And then there’s kruistemint, which keeps you from running to the chemist.” Mammietjie waved the sweet-smelling mint in the air and ensured us that tea from a few leaves steeped in hot water would bring peaceful sleep. “And put the plant inside your home and it will keep away the common goggatjies.”
A few blocks away from Mammietjie lives Aunt Lottie, who has a “resep” (recipe) for a cancer cure that wasn’t learned from her mother but was gleaned from a fellow traveller in a taxi en route from Upington to Kakamas. Lottie scribbled it down when she got home and has since shared it with friends and family with encouraging results. “You grind the dried leaves of perske [peach], lemoene [orange], bloekombome [eucalyptus trees], kalkoenbos [Sutherlandia frutescens] and voëlent [mistletoe] and combine them with borrie [turmeric].”
I was fast realising that a strong belief system was as important as a pinch of this and a pinch of that. This was substantiated by an environmentally aware Kakamas local, Eugene Scheepers, who has an interest in the medicinal plants of the area and has discovered their most common uses over the years. “The land here is such a rich treasure-chest,” he said. “I am always rescuing and replanting specimens before an area is ploughed over to establish
His mother instilled in him a deep love for the plant kingdom and he grew up on a farm among Nama children, learning about their everyday remedies. “On forays into the bush with my father, a geologist, I chewed pieces of hoodia so that I was never hungry.”
Eugene does stress that, while medicinal plants are always beneficial, their specific usage varies from area to area and from group to group. But he also admits that, to this day, some of the plant remedies he learnt about when he was young – such as a wild olive extract beneficial to those with high blood pressure – have become part of his daily ritual.
As I drove north out of this intriguing pocket of Bushmanland, with its red sand and snaking Orange River, I looked out in wonder at the tapestry of grasses and bushes on all sides. In it were hidden infinite secrets.
The Kalahari Chemist
- Hoodia, (Hoodia gordonii), known to suppress the appetite and prevent thirst.
- Monsonia angustifolia (also called verpisbossie for its role in helping patients with prostate problems) for colds, fever and diarrhoea.
- Devil’s claw, known here as kloudoring (Harpagophytum procumbens), is used to control lice and can also be used for worms, indigestion and fever. Its beneficial effects for arthritis sufferers are well known in the Western World.
- Birdlime/voëlent (Mylothris sp.) is used as a treatment for skin cancer and for high blood pressure.
- Wild olive leaf extract for colds, flu and high blood pressure.