Medicinal Resilience: African Plant Knowledge Through Bondage and Beyond
African American herbalism is part of the backbone of a multitude of healing traditions in many parts of the Americas. However, it is often underappreciated, as are the rich herbal traditions of the African continent. Thankfully, a time has come where lineages such as these are being lifted up and celebrated as part of the rich tapestry of healing formed over thousands of years and thousands of miles of transition and transformation.
In many contemporary mainstream contexts, Africa is often thought of as a poor continent fraught with struggle and strife. While struggle and strife may still be true for many areas, the concept of “poor” is relative. Africa is very rich in mineral resources as well as biological and cultural diversity. Yet, like so many places, the distribution of goods to the general population is often eschewed to favor a small number of the domestic and international elite.
My own story is interwoven here as I am the son of an African American man and a Dutch woman. And my dad remarried a Jamaican woman whose community I have learned from over the years. Though I have a known lineage of healers in the African American side of my biological family, and probably further back in the European part as well, little of that knowledge has been passed down to my generation or beyond. That said, I have spent years studiously reading the literature of the African American healing traditions and learning directly from contemporary practitioners and scholars on the subject. Even still, I am continuously humbled by the scale and variety of knowledge there is to unearth and share on the subject of how Black folks have influenced the herbal traditions of the Americas! This is not really surprising when considering their influence on so many other forms of our amalgamated culture. To understand the foundation from which the practices in African American herbalism have sprung, one must first look to the continent of Africa.
Traditions and Plants of Select African Countries
Egypt, also known as Khemet, is probably one of the most well-known of the 54 countries in Africa. The herbal traditions there span thousands of years and are exemplified in the 3,500-year-old Ebers Papyrus which contains hundreds of herbal remedies.1 The traditions of this area went on to influence famous and foundational Greek and Roman healers like Dioscorides, Galen, Hippocrates, and Pliny as well as being influenced themselves by the traditions of Asia and the Middle East.
Ethiopia, also known as Abyssinia, is another East African country full of rich traditions spanning millennia. It is the original source of plants like coffee (Coffea spp.) and, along with neighboring countries, botanicals like frankincense (Boswellia sacra), khat (Catha edulis), and myrrh (Commiphora spp.).
South Africa is a wonderland of plant diversity with thousands of species that only grow there and nowhere else on Earth! The San Bushmen are one well-known group that have been studied for their herbal practices, which stem back in an unbroken chain over millennia. Many of our favorite houseplants and choice ornamentals come from this area. One major plant of commerce is rooibos (Aspalanthus linearis).
Madagascar is one of the largest islands on our planet. It is another place in the world where thousands of endemic plants live—and nowhere else. One famous medicinal is the Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus), which is commercially used to fight cancer.2 Though vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) is native to Mexico, much of what is grown for world distribution is hand-pollinated and cultivated in Madagascar.
These are just a few examples among many of the rich botanical and cultural traditions that are contained within the continent of Africa.
The Slave Trade
West Africa is comprised of many small countries like Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo along the northwestern coast bordered by the much larger Mauritania and Nigeria, as well as several larger countries in the interior like Algeria, Mali, and Niger. From this coastal area, many of the enslaved peoples of Africa were brought to the Americas. The British, Danish, Dutch, French, and Portuguese were the major European slave traders. The Portuguese, in particular, also had a focused slave trade in the southeastern coastal areas of what is now called Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Gabon.
The scale of the slave trade was staggering. Over 11 million people in chains were brought to the Americas over the course of 350 years. Of that total, at least 1 million were brought to North America. Many ethnic groups comprised the waves of people transported in bondage to the American shores. Some cultural groups include the Akan, Bamileke, Bantu, Chamba, Ewe, Fulani, Ga, Hausa, Ibo/Igbo, Jola, Kru, Mande/Mandinka, Mbundu, Wolof, and Yoruba, among many more.3
Though many tend to think of slavery as historic, it is important to understand that millions of children in places like Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana in particular still work in close to slave-like conditions in the chocolate, or cacao (Theobroma cacao), industry. Though cacao is originally native to the Americas, most of it is now cultivated in Africa. The fact that chocolate derived from the exploitation of child labor is used in some of our most important rituals—Easter, Halloween, and Valentine’s Day—is truly appalling. One person’s pleasure is thus directly at the expense of a child’s pain. Ignorance is often bliss in regards to tough subjects like this one. However, I cannot write an article like this without helping to remove such obliviousness for the sake of those children and so many other exploited agricultural workers often of Black and brown coloration all over the world. Buying fairtrade organic chocolate is one alternative to enjoying a treat with a freer conscience about its world-wide effects.
Spiritual Traditions in the Diaspora
Traditions in a place as big and complex as Africa of course abound with diversity. All over the continent, the role of ancestors carries importance. Yet, the cultures of the area now called Nigeria and neighboring Togo and Benin, for example, have had an outsized impact on the herbal and spiritual practices throughout the African diaspora from Brazil to North America. (In this case, diaspora refers to the involuntary mass dispersion and scattering of African peoples). The spiritual path of Ifá, originating from the Yoruba people, has had a major influence in particular. A pantheon of deities known as Orishas with different areas of influence and personalities are honored through these traditions. Osanyin is one spirit associated with herbalism. From Ifá, numerous traditions have sprouted in the Americas, including Candomble, Lucumi, Santeria, and others. These traditions are not to be confused with Vodun, or Voodoo, which comes largely from the Fon and Ewe cultures around Benin and Togo. Voodoo itself is different from Hoodoo, which is a less religious tradition and more syncretic from the southeastern United States.
Plant Material from Africa
The African continent is incredibly diverse and home to thousands of native grains, roots, fruits, vegetables, and legumes.4–7 Many foods and medicines from this cornucopia of plants have become cornerstones of international commerce. Many more likely have the potential for further research and popularization. When one of my mentors, Frank Cook, wrote his Master’s thesis, one of his findings was that African herbalism was one of the least understood and most undervalued of the various continental traditions according to his respondents from Europe and North America.8
The anthropologist Judith Carney has detailed the traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) transfer of plants from Africa to the Americas and vice versa rather thoroughly.9 Some of these findings are distilled in the following and separated into categories. Fruits and vegetables of African origin that have become staples in the Americas include black-eyed peas (Vigna unguiculata), okra (Abelmoschus esculentus), senna (Cassia spp.), sesame (Sesamum indicum), sorrel (Hibiscus sabdariffa), and watermelon (Citrullus lanatus). Some more specifically medicinal or food-as-medicine plants include aloe (Aloe spp.) and bitter melon (Momordica charantia).
Some trees include the African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), baobab (Adansonia spp.), cola (Cola acuminata), coffee (Coffea spp.), mango (Mangifera indica), horseradish tree (Moringa oleifera), miracle fruit (Synsepalum dulcificum), shea (Vittelaria paradoxa), and tamarind (Tamarindus indica). From a number of these trees come oils used in body care, food, and healing practices. The importance of trees for sacred and spiritual purposes in many parts of Africa is hard to overstate. Some of the best and last-remaining groves of old-growth trees on the continent are preserved by religious groups.10 The enormous baobabs are probably one of the most famous from the continent. Some beautifully big examples grow in south Florida as can be seen in the picture here.
Africa is mostly within the tropics. Much of Central and South America and the Caribbean are located in this climate zone as well. For that reason, they share a similar collection of plants known as a flora. Introduced plants from Africa were sometimes given the name “Guinea” or “Angolan” as part of their common name in recognition of origination. Angola grass (Brachiaria mutica), Angola pea (Cajanus cajan), Guinea pepper (Xylopia aethiopica), Guinea squash (Solanum aethiopicum), Guinea yam (Dioscorea cayenensis), and Guinea grass (Panicum maximum) are some examples.
Holistic Healing in the African Context
In many traditional African healing practices, as in other Indigenous groups around the world, sickness is treated holistically. It is understood that there is an inherent psychic, spiritual, and emotional component to sickness and healing. The use of special dress, music, dancing, and various other techniques in the ritual of healing is common and diverse across the continent. The time of harvest can be an important factor to consider as well. Formulas of plant mixtures may often be employed versus the silver bullet approach of one herb or pharmaceutical to treat a problem.
Botanical Knowledge Transfer
To understand the transfer of agricultural and herbal traditions and knowledge in the context of the forced roles of enslavement, one must first remember that the knowledge of enslaved peoples was typically considered the property of their owners and not credited to them. Most enslaved peoples did not read or write, so healing was primarily a generational oral tradition. However, through the cultural cauldron that was the slave trade, it is clear that many ideas were shared or forcibly extracted in regards to the utility of plants both from the “old” world of the colonizers and the “new” world that was collectively being explored and exploited. The tropical experience of Africans meant that many white settlers from northern cool-climate Europe were absolutely dependent upon their knowledge, along with the knowledge of local Indigenous peoples, with regards to creating a plantation herbalism that employed and synthesized the use of locally-introduced and natively-occurring plants. This reliance of the owner class upon Black and Indigenous knowledge also extended to agriculture—especially regarding warm-weather crops like cassava (Manihot esculenta), cotton (Gossypium spp.), sugar (Saccharum officinarum), and yams (Dioscorea spp.).
In many colonial territories, enslaved peoples greatly outnumbered white people. In these areas, professionals like doctors were not often readily available; therefore, Black folks often filled many roles within society, including that of the healer. Yet, whether Black folk medicine was encouraged or forbidden varied from place to place. Graman Quassi was one such healer who was also an enslaved person, and later a freedman living in the 18th century. He is famous as the subject of the only botanical species—out of over 8,000 examples named by Linnaeus—that honors a formerly enslaved person. He saved a multitude of people in Dutch Guiana/Suriname in the 1700s with his namesake, bitterwood plant (Quassia amara). In Suriname, as well as other places throughout the diaspora, there are groups of people who live collectively called Maroons. The term Maroon is of Spanish origin and refers to escaped enslaved peoples who set up autonomous communities outside the control of the dominating class. Maroon healing traditions have been well-studied in Suriname as well as Jamaica.11–14
Hopefully this article has helped outline some of the contributions of both Africa and its people to the rich blend of herbal knowledge from which we all benefit in our current age. Further writing will delve deeper into the African American traditions in North America in particular and will also offer many more resources for further reading and exploration.
- Manniche L. An Ancient Egyptian Herbal. Rev. British Museum Press; 2006.
- Naeem M, Aftab T, Khan MMA, eds. Catharanthus Roseus: Current Research and Future Prospects. Springer; 2017.
- Eltis D, Richardson D, Blight DW, Davis DB. Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Illustrated edition. Yale University Press; 2015.
- Iwu MM. Handbook of African Medicinal Plants. 2nd ed. CRC Press; 2014.
- Sofowora A. Medicinal Plants and Traditional Medicine in Africa. John Wiley & Sons Ltd.; 1982.
- Burkill HM. Useful Plants of West Tropical Africa: General Index. Vol 6. 2nd ed.; 2004.
- Hutchings A, Scott AH, Lewis G, Cunningham. Zulu Medicinal Plants: An Inventory. University of Natal Press; 1996.
- Cook F. Emerging Planetary Medicines. Self-published Master’s Thesis; 2009.
- Carney J, Rosomoff RN. In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World. University of California Press; 2011.
- Bhagwat SA, Rutte C. Sacred groves: Potential for biodiversity management. Front Ecol Environ. 2006;4(10):519-524. doi:10.1890/1540-9295(2006)4[519:SGPFBM]2.0.CO;2
- Price R, ed. Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas. 3rd ed. Johns Hopkins University Press; 1996.
- Harris I. Healing Herbs of Jamaica. AhHa Press; 2010.
- Cohen M. Medical Beliefs And Practices Of The Maroons Of Moore Town A Study In Acculturation. Published online 1973. Accessed September 15, 2016. http://public.eblib.com/choice/PublicFullRecord.aspx?p=3394370
- Price PR. The Guiana Maroons: A Historical and Bibliographical Introduction. The Johns Hopkins University Press; 1976.