Learning about the Local Herbs of the Maasai

Every time I travel, I try to teach myself something about local herbal lore. I find that every time I go to visit a different place, it’s absolutely stunning how much different the flora actually is. It might seem obvious, but I’m amazed every time I see it.

In fact, even if you step outside of your immediate neighborhood, you will find herbs that don’t grow near your house as readily. Imagine my fascination and absolute amazement when I found myself in Africa.

How does one just find themselves in Africa? As I stood on a large patio overlooking the Maasai Mara National Park and breathed in the warm evening air, I wondered if I were dreaming. In fact, I found myself spirited away from my tiny UK garden by two of my friends – who were getting eloped.

I approved of this, and so did their whole family, who were scattered all around the world and any wedding venue for these two would turn into a destination wedding. They asked for donations for a proper fairy tale elopement and were off in style to a luxury safari lodge in the heart of Kenya.

And I with them, as the main photographer, moral support and guest of honor. “Why would we take a stranger here, when we can take you?” It was settled. After the incredible private celebration and a bit of recuperating, I could look around on my own. What fascinated me were the plants that surrounded this peaceful safari lodge.

When I had a moment’s peace, I found my thoughts coming back to my hobby and obsession. You see, I am used to looking down all the time. It’s impossible to take a walk with me, without hearing “Oh, look at that milk thistle/yarrow/tansy!” And I usually veer dangerously to the left or right, losing my companion.

Here, I was at a loss. I didn’t know what anything was. There were so many curious plants and shrubs sticking out underfoot – but although I knew I was on the same planet, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what I saw.

I sat down next to a large fire pit. It was the most beautiful firepit I have ever seen – because of the view. The entire Maasai Mara stretched out like an ocean, somewhere down below me. The view was spectacular. I made friends with an older lady who seemed to be enjoying the view as much as I was.

I talked about myself, then my floral predicament. She gasped and exclaimed: “ You should go on an herbal walk with a Maasai botanist!” This sounded like something out of Harry Potter to me, and I laughed.

“No, really!” There is a Maasai botanist that can take you on a walking safari, and tell you about the herbs they use for healing and for cooking! Ask about it!” Did I mention this place was perfect?

The Walk

A full day of walking. That’s what I signed myself up for. My head was swimming in excitement.  I was greeted by a tall man, dressed entirely in traditional Maasai clothing. I looked at his ornamental bead necklaces and traditional headdress in wonder. I have seen many of the Maasai wear shirts and other modern garments with their shuka but this man was 100% traditional – he looked like a warrior prince.

As we walked through steep embankments and valleys, it became clear that he was indeed a prince – a prince of naturalists. The amount of knowledge and respect for nature that this man had was truly incredible. He seemed to know every shrub and plant along the way. I could see that this passion was universal.

Traditional Maasai plants

When I first started to learn about herbs, it amazed me that pretty much every plant that you find has a use. Before that, I thought that most wild plants are poisonous. I think that represents our general attitude towards something we don’t know.

When one lives out in nature, not in a city – the world around you becomes the main source of tools. Aside from herbs used for healing, plants are used for just about everything else – building, food, weapons.

A traditional Maasai diet consists of meat, milk and blood from cows, and stews from plants. Although it is very high in fat, most people do not suffer from what we traditionally think of as western diseases that may be caused by such a diet.  My guide said that even today, this diet still applies to a lot of communities. The Maasai are herders first and foremost, and cattle is a huge part of their culture and traditions, even if it’s getting harder and harder to live traditionally. Encroachment into their native grazing lands is making it very difficult.

As we walked, we looked at the Sodom Apple. It is a large shrub, with leaves that are lance-shaped and sage in color. There were a few tiny eggplant-looking fruit growing on it, and I asked if they’re edible. Alas, they are not. The fruit is applied topically to help with bleeding from a wound. Or can be used to help with toothaches. But not to eat. The roots are also used – boiled and drank as an infusion to help with stomach pain. I know now why it looked so familiar- it’s closely related to the potato, tomato and eggplant! I knew it reminded me of something! When they mature, the fruit becomes bright yellow. They are about the size of cherry tomatoes.

Next, we passed a cluster of trees – the Worm-Cure Albizia. It reminded me a bit of Elder, because it grew in a cluster, with multiple stems, not just one trunk. The roots of this tree are boiled in soups and is said to be very delicious. Another thing that I knew is true for European plants – and is universal throughout the world: the bark of this tree is used as a purgative and anthelmintic. Young shoots of the Albizia are also used for that purpose. It is very effective against tapeworm, and sticks from this shrub are used as toothbrushes. It’s often called the “Maasai toothbrush”. The wood itself is also very useful for making posts, furniture, spoons and art. It’s a nice red-brown color.

The same plant may have different active ingredients in its roots, it’s bark, foliage, flowers, fruit, and seeds. It even depends what time of the year it is, and what development stage the plant is at. Some plants shouldn’t be eaten after they bloom because the level of toxic chemicals is raised after it produces flowers. People living across the world from each other have figured this out on their own, in their own respective environments.

Terminalia brownii is another very important tree in Maasai culture. This tree can cure fevers (especially in children), is used for pink eye, colds. It’s used to treat pneumonia and tuberculosis. It is also used for building.

Coming Home

I will always remember that nature walk. It taught me so much, but also made me hungry for more. Travel is about a lot of things. You can travel the world a hundred times over if you look at your surroundings from a different perspective.

It intimidated me how much I still don’t know. I have been to Tibet, but there, I concentrated on trekking. What if I concentrated on their herbal lore instead? What about all the other parts of the word?

Even if you have been to a place before, you will be surprised how much there still is to discover and learn.

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