Traditional African Medicine: Herbalism in Africa

Published on March 18, 2024

By Kristen Boye BS, Natural Health

Kristen Boye

Kristen Boye is a natural health expert, writer, copywriter, and editor. Kristen was raised on an organic farm in British Columbia which inspired her life’s work. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Natural Health, is a Certified Natural Foods Chef, co-owner of a medicinal herb farm, and is a natural foods and children’s health advocate. Kristen lives with her husband and two children on their medicinal herb farm in Western North Carolina.

Traditional wellness practices, like Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda, have gained acceptance and popularity in the West.

However, Traditional African Medicine (TAM), considered the world's oldest form of traditional medicine, remains largely unfamiliar to many.

Yet, many of us unknowingly benefit from this centuries-old wisdom through the use of herbal products originating from African herbalism and folklore.

In this article, we’re pulling back the curtain and examining some of the fascinating history, herbs, and practices behind the vast and varied discipline of Traditional African Medicine.

What is Traditional African Medicine? 

Traditional African Medicine is the traditional wellness practice of Africa combined with a dominant religious/spiritual component. 

As Africa is considered the cradle of humankind, TAM is regarded as the oldest Traditional Medicine practice in the world.

Traditional African Medicine is more eclectic than other, more homogenized traditional wellness systems due to the diverse range of countries, cultures, religions, beliefs, effects of colonization, and indigenous wisdom practices throughout the continent.

However, the traditional African philosophy of illness typically encompasses relations between God, ancestors, the living, and the universe.

Although this may seem unfamiliar to non-Africans, a basic understanding of how this works is foundational to understanding TAM.

According to a paper entitled “Understanding traditional African healing,” published in the African Journal for Physical Health Education, Recreation, and Dance, traditional and indigenous African religions see and relate to God differently than other religions.

For starters, departed/dead ancestors play a primary role in a person’s relationship with God and health. 

They see these ancestors as compassionate spirits that act as mediators between the living and God. 

God is held in the highest esteem as the creator and ultimate ruler of the universe. Therefore, he is not addressed directly but through departed ancestors. 

These communications or prayers may be facilitated by a Traditional African Medicine practitioner or healer as they relate to physical, mental, or emotional health states.

In addition to facilitating communication and relations with ancestors, the use of traditional plants and herbs and various animal products are common threads between the varied forms of this ancient practice.

Before the introduction of modern medicine through colonialism, Traditional African Medicine was the dominant, or in some cases the only system available to millions of people in rural and urban communities. 

Today, Traditional African Medicine and herbalism are alive and well, with research showing most Africans rely on it as their primary healthcare resource. 

For example:REF#3735

  • According to the World Health Organization, over 80% of Africans use Traditional African Medicine
  • In Ghana, about 70% of the population depends primarily on TAM
  • Approximately 27 million South Africans (typically black South Africans) use TAM to treat a variety of ailments
  • 90% of the population in Ethiopia use herbal preparations as their primary healthcare REF#3736

However, colonialism, which viewed ancestral medicine as inferior, dangerous, or even “witchcraft,” impeded the growth and development of Traditional African Medicine for a very long time.

How Colonialism Impacted Traditional African Medicine

As mentioned previously, Traditional African Medicine was the primary medicine of the people, passed down from generation to generation, healer to healer, medicine person to medicine person until colonialism took hold.

Although there are different perspectives on how colonialism impacted indigenous knowledge systems, including medicine and folklore, it is clear indigenous practices were attacked, stigmatized, and even banned in some countries and regions.

According to Hassim et al., as noted in the research paper: “Trends and Challenges of Traditional Medicine in Africa. African Journal of Traditional, Complementary, and Alternative Medicines:

“During several centuries of conquest and invasion, European systems of medicine were introduced by colonizers. Pre-existing African systems were stigmatized and marginalized. Indigenous knowledge systems were denied the chance to systematize and develop.”

Although many Traditional African Medicine practices survived and thrived in these times, others did not fare so well.

For example, in South Africa, the South African Medical Association outlawed traditional medical systems in South Africa in 1953, denying people access to the herbs, wellness practices, and rituals of their ancestors. 

The Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1957 and the Witchcraft Suppression Amendment Act of 1970 also declared Traditional medicine unconstitutional and banned its practice in South Africa.

Other countries and regions fared better and were able to preserve the ancient ways of healing.

For example, in 1922, a group of native Nigerian healers insisted that their medicine be legally recognized.

The idea of these practices being linked to “witchcraft” (due to the integration of supernatural forces, which we’ll discuss more in the next section) caused a great deal of suppression, stigmatism, and harm to these indigenous medicine systems.

Fortunately, in post-independence Africa, these traditional wellness practices are recognized as an important aspect of healthcare delivery systems. 

This is evident through establishing and expanding University research studies of native herbs; accreditation, registries, and regulations for native healers; and federal integration (in some countries, such as Nigeria) of Traditional Medicine as part of primary care.

Undoubtedly, Traditional African Medicine and those who relied on it experienced suppression, harm, and setbacks due to colonialism.

However, the peoples’ interest in and commitment to their indigenous medicines and traditions has helped protect and revitalize many of these ancient practices.

Traditional African Medicine Practitioners

Practitioners of Traditional African Medicine receive a special calling from their ancestors to become healers.

This calling may come from a physical, mental, or emotional illness or through specific dreams.

Their callings are then verified by another healer, who then advises the next steps regarding training and teachers or mentors.

Trainees or apprentices live with their trainers and are taught various aspects of TAM, such as but not limited to:

  • Preparing and using plant, herbs, and animal extracts
  • Diagnostic techniques such as interpreting bones
  • Dream analysis
  • Communicating with the ancestors 
  • How to identify and address different illnesses and health concerns

Training can take years, and upon completion, a ceremony or initiation is performed to validate and legitimize the healer.

Traditional African Medicine practitioners go by many different titles depending on where they practice and their training/calling, including:REF#3737

  • Bonesetters
  • Diviners
  • Herbalists
  • High priests
  • Midwives
  • Practitioners of Therapeutic Occultism

They also go by different names, such as:

  • Babalawo, Adahunse or Oniseegun among the Yoruba speaking people of Nigeria
  • Abia ibok among the Ibibio community of Nigeria 
  • Dibia among the Igbo of Nigeria
  • Boka among the Hausa-speaking people of Nigeria
  • Sangoma or Nyanga among South Africans

These traditional practitioners serve many roles, including but not limited to acting as custodians of the traditional African religion and customs, herbalists, nutritionists, educators of culture, counselors, social workers, and psychologists.REF#3738

They are also pillars of their communities and sought-after for various advice.

Many researchers have noted it is near-impossible to separate Traditional African Medicine from various African religions and spiritual practices as the two are interwoven, with practitioners playing dual roles as religious leaders or prophets and healers.

Traditional healers generally diagnose and treat the mental and spiritual person before recommending herbs or plants for physical symptoms.REF#3739

Treatment often includes determining which spirits are at work and how to bring a sick person back into harmony with the ancestors.

Traditional African healers may also recommend different herbs and other plants, mineral, or animal substances (zootherapy),REF#3740 offer nutritional advice, and employ various methodologies, including:

  • Surgeries, such as circumcisions
  • Healing rituals, such as prayers, dancing, and animal sacrifice
  • Bone Setting
  • Attendance at births (birth attendants are usually older women who have mastered the skills of midwifery through experience)
  • Various diagnostic systems
  • Bodywork
  • Exercises

Given TAM's diversity, it is impossible to summarize the full scope of what these practitioners provide.

However, they are credited with supporting the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of their tribes and people for thousands of years. They are still sought-after today—exclusively or in addition to modern medical care.

Traditional Herbs and Plants Used in Traditional African Medicine

Traditional plants and herbs are a common thread within the spectrum of Traditional African Medicine.

Africa’s diverse climate and landscapes make it incredibly biodiverse. 

It is estimated that between 40,000 to 45,000 species of African plants may have potential health benefits.REF#3741

Of these, 5,000 species are used to support various aspects of health.

In many parts of rural Africa, these herbs and plants are the most accessible, affordable, and sometimes, the only health resource available. They are also considered the most common traditional medicine in the country.

As the introduction mentions, North Americans and Europeans regularly benefit from traditional African herbs in various supplements and teas.

Some examples of African herbs include:REF#3742 REF#3743 REF#3744

  • Acacia, also known as Gum Arabic: Promotes gut health, digestive, respiratory, and heart function and aids occasional constipation. It’s also used as a thickener, stabilizer, and flavor enhancer in foods and beverages.
  • African Ginger, also known as Wild Ginger: Has been traditionally used to support immune and respiratory function for nausea and minor pain management.
  • Artemisia, Asteraceae, or Wormwood: Used traditionally to support intestinal, cardiovascular, bronchial, and metabolic function and for minor pain management.
  • Bitter Aloe or Cape Aloe: Used to support digestion, soothe the skin, and for occasional constipation, this herb is considered a bitter tonic with antioxidant and inflammatory-support properties.
  • Bitter Melon: This plant is used extensively throughout traditional African and Asian wellness practices. The leaves are prepared as a tea called “cerassie,” and its juice is commonly used in folklore to support metabolic function and sugar metabolism.
  • Centella: This prehistoric plant is used in many cultures, including Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Kampo (Japanese traditional medicine), and Traditional African Medicine to support skin health, eye health, inflammatory response, respiratory function, immune response, joint health, and cognitive function.
    • Devil's Claw: Native to South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia, Devil’s Claw has been used for centuries by the indigenous and is one of the most highly commercialized traditional African herbs. Traditional uses include supporting histamine response for minor pain management, cardiovascular function, bitter tonic, blood function, challenges with childbirth, urinary function, menstrual cramps, digestive function, joint function, indigestion, as a liver and gallbladder tonic, sleep, and skin health.

    • Ginger: This familiar herb is used throughout Africa and Asia to support digestive function, minor pain management, and nausea.
    • Honeybush: This tasty South African herb is used as a tea and taken to support digestive and urinary function, breastmilk production, and for fussy babies.

      • Madagascar periwinkle: This native African herb is commonly used in Traditional African Medicine as a bitter tonic, galactagogue (supports breast milk production, and emetic (to induce vomiting). 
      • Pelargonium sidoides, also known as African Geranium or Umckaloabo: Native to the coastal regions of South Africa, P. sidoides root extract EPs 7630, also known as Umckaloabo, is a traditional and well-studied herb used to support immune and respiratory function. Its use is widespread globally, including in North America, and is a popular ingredient in many herbal cough syrups. It also has a history of traditional use for gastrointestinal support.
      • Rooibos: Known globally as an antioxidant-rich, caffeine-free herbal tea, Rooibos has been traditionally used to calm fussy babies, and research suggests it may provide protective benefits and support bronchial, immune, cognitive, and cell function.
      • Tamarind: The bark and leaves of Tamarind have been traditionally used to support skin health, as a laxative (the fruit), and to support normal bowel function.

      This is not an extensive list of all traditional plants and herbs used in Traditional African Medicine. 

      However, it gives a good overview of the diversity of plants used in this ancient wellness practice.

      Traditional African Medicine Today

      Research shows that 60-80% of Africans still rely on TAM, either exclusively or in addition to modern medical care.

      Some African medical Universities have also incorporated varying levels of TAM education within their curriculum.

      However, not everyone is on board with these traditional practices. 

      Passionate ambivalence towards traditional folklore and herbalism has been noted in some segments of the population and medical establishments, particularly among educated elites.REF#3745

      Westernization and urbanization have also significantly impacted the use of TAM in rural and urban communities in positive and negative ways.

      Accessibility to modern medicines and drugs in middle and low-income countries is a big reason for the sustained popularity of TAM.

      Studies have shown drugs are beyond the reach of large sections of rural and poor populations in Africa and throughout the world.REF#3746

      Plus, medical doctors in Africa tend to be concentrated in urban areas, making their services inaccessible for millions in rural areas who, instead, rely on native healers as the primary healthcare providers.

      To put this in perspective:

      • The ratio of traditional healers to the population in Africa is 1 to 500 
      • The ratio of medical doctors to the population is 1 to 40,000

      African herbs are also widely used within and outside of Africa. 

      Specific herbs such as Pelargonium sidoides (aka: African Geranium or Umckaloabo), Madagascar Periwinkle, Devil’s Clase, Rooibos, and Acaia are widely studied and exported to the West.

      Unlike Western countries, which are just now rediscovering the benefits of various traditional and indigenous medicines (aka: complementary alternative medicine or CAM), the majority of Africans have held fast to their traditional wellness practices, even in the face of adversity.

      How to Learn More Traditional African Medicine

      African Traditional Medicine has not had the same level of exposure or acceptance as others, like Traditional Chinese Medicine or Ayurveda, in North America.

      However, there are active Traditional African Medicine practitioners and herbalists in North America.

      For example, the Professional Association of Traditional African Medicine is a resource for finding training, research, and information on naturopathic herbalist studies and TAM in America.

      People can also experience aspects of Traditional African Medicine through cultural events African cuisine, and by learning more about and/or trying TAM herbs.

      Rooibos and Honeybush teas, for example, can be found in natural foods stores and online.

      Tamarind fruit is a delicious sweet and/or sour snack, available in African, Asian, and ethnic markets and some natural foods stores.

      You can also try herbal cough syrups containing sustainably and ethically sourced Pelargonium sidoides, which may be sold under the brand name: “Umckaloabo,” “Umcka,” or “Umka,” or listed as: EPs (Extract Pelargonium) 7630 the next time you need a little respiratory support.

      In closing, this article could not encompass or explain all the history, nuances, intricacies, research, spiritual and religious aspects, and overall variety that comprise the ancient practices of Traditional African Medicine.

      Although there are excellent research papers to draw from, much of this wisdom remains within the African communities and tribes in which it originated.

      Thankfully, researchers and historians, along with modern communication and technology, have given us a glimpse into the vast and often mysterious world of Traditional African Medicine, a system from which we may all find resonance and benefit.


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