When you’re living and working in a foreign country, at some point you can expect to get sick. So I wasn’t surprised when I came down with a cold last weekend.
What was surprising, though, was the strong disclaimer from the Ghanaian doctor that accompanied my prescription: “This will purify your blood,” he said, cupping the bark of a mahogany tree in his hands. Incidentally, this traditional Ghanaian cure for the common cold was also what the doctor ordered for infertile women. “When you drink this, you will conceive,” he said.
More interested in boosting my immunity than I was in babies and booster seats, I, like many Ghanaians, took the doctor’s words quite seriously. There are roughly 45,000 traditional healers in Ghana, with rural areas being the mecca for traditional medicine due to the high cost of mainstream medicine, doctor shortages and the deep spiritual beliefs that are often attributed to the causes of diseases in these regions.
I’ve always been curious about the efficacy of herbal remedies. My interest peaked following the recent arrests of illegal drug and aphrodisiac vendors at two of Accra’s major transportation hubs, Kaneshie Market and Nkrumah Circle, by Ghana’s Food and Drugs Board. It was a friend’s recommendation that led me to the office of 78-year-old herbalist Kofi Budu at his secluded house in the bushes of Akwadum, a small village in eastern Ghana.
Mr. Budu claims to have cured “countless” patients — both Ghanaian and foreign — of ailments ranging from diabetes and epilepsy to breast cancer and even AIDS. He does this, he says “with very potent herbs and roots” from his backyard.
After placing my prescribed bark into in a small plastic bag, Mr. Budu asked me to purchase potassium nitrate and M&B 760 from a drugstore to complete my prescription. The former is typically used in Western medicine as a diuretic, while the latter is an antibacterial.
Normally, Mr. Budu would mix the ingredients for me, but I had a long, bumpy journey back to Accra and it was getting dark. As the herbalist explained how I should boil my medicine, I stared at tree bark that he believes holds the key to curing some of the world’s deadliest diseases.
“So you’re telling me that you can cure cancer and AIDS?” I asked. “I’m telling you,” said Mr. Budu, with confidence. “I tried a medicine to treat about 10 people with AIDS and I was successful.”
Though section 18 of Ghana’s Food and Drugs Law prohibits the manufacturing of any drug that has not been registered with the Food and Drugs Board, many herbalists in Ghana have claimed to have found cures for serious illnesses like cancer and AIDS. However, doctor-patient confidentiality rules and the difficulty of actually finding a former patient to substantiate these claims leave much speculation about the effectiveness of herbal remedies.
Mr. Budu has been practising herbal medicine since 1942, having trained with his late father who was also an herbalist. He has absolutely no doubt in the efficacy of his medicine.
“African herbs are extremely powerful,” said Mr. Budu. If you know someone who is sick, bring them to me and I will cure them. You will see I am telling the truth.”
Mr. Budu didn’t charge me for my prescription because he said my restored health would “get the word out” about his medicine. So I made the rocky four-hour journey back to Accra and headed to a pharmacy near my home to pick up the necessary ingredients to concoct my cold cure. Surprisingly, they were sold out of M&B 760, at not one, but three local dispensaries. So I’d have to unlock the mysteries of Mr. Budu’s herbs another time.
In the meantime, already feeling refreshed from a plentiful dose of clean country air, I’ll settle for alternative medicine from my childhood: Advil, my bed and some chicken noodle soup.