Nigeria's 'Gbogbonise' brew peddlers: Healers or killers?

Tanzanian herbalist Ambilikile Mwasapile
Tanzanian herbalist Ambilikile Mwasapile (left) dispenses his “wonder drug” at his home in Loliondo, Arusha in August 2011. The herbal concoction was said to cure all diseases, sparking a stampede to his house by both the poor and the well-off. In Nigeria, roadside herbal-based mixtures are also popular among all social classes.   FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

The busy Igan Iduganran is a ghost of itself on an early Friday morning. The hub of traders who usually dominate a greater part of the area are nowhere to be seen with trading yet to start. In the meantime, their space has been taken over by Alagbo sellers.

Iya Alagbo, as she is named after her trade, is a frail woman in her 40s although she is more shrunken by hard work rather than age. The fold of overlapping flesh on her forehead is puckered in a furrow as she serves a customer a steaming cup of the herb mixture.

"Mama, I want Agbo Iba," says a man who ambles over lazily from a bus parked across the road. He has just woken up, his eyes are still muddled with speck. Iya Alagbo, like the "doctor" she is, dips a blue coloured cup into a boiling pot of herbs on an open fire; pours the hot content into another cup and hands it over to her "patient" without any previous medical check up.

Popularly called "Awo Igba Arun" in Yoruba, a native language (that which cures hundreds of diseases), it is also known as "gbogbonise" by its users because of its claim to cure all manner of ailments including inflammatory diseases such as arthritis and rheumatism, malaria, typhoid fever and piles among others.

"I know the right Agbo to give for the right ailment," she tells me proudly, as she turns her face away from the smoke rising from the open fire." It has worked for many people and its potency cannot be faulted. It is natural."

Gbogbonise peddlers are common figures among the Yoruba speaking people in western Nigeria where they peddle a group of herbs that has been an alternative form of medicine for many Nigerians. The majority of the herb traders are women with little or no education yet they seem to know the right herbal mixture to administer for any kind of ailment.

Handed down

Their insights comes from inherited knowledge and years of practice, coupled with botanical knowledge of the plant species, the secrets behind their trade. "It is a trade handed down from my mother in Ilorin" says Iya Alagbo.

Gbogbonise peddlers are the only ones who understand their prescriptions. The herbal mixtures are either based on a single plant part or a combination of several plant parts. The use of more than two species is very common. "Agbo Iba (malaria herb) is a combination of ewe mangoro, efinrin and others. I just bring them to boil and I sell it hot. It's very bitter but that is what brings the cure. It may loose its potency if left cold," says Munirat. She did not explain why the herbal mixture is effective when hot but ineffective when cold.

The inability to explain why their medicine works has not however affected the patronage of gbogbonise sellers. They are often consulted by both the high and low income group for wide variety of illnesses and disease conditions.

An aerial view of Lagos, Nigeria. FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Ayo is a Lagos banker who patronises gbogbonise sellers. He says "I send my driver every morning to get me "gbogbonise". It is very good and helps me with my back pain and keeps me alert all day. I also use it whenever I have malaria because I have found out that these modern malaria drugs are not that effective. Last time I had malaria, I took the conventional malaria drugs for over two weeks without any positive result but when I took gbogbonise for just three days, I got well."

Ori Yarin, a suburb on Lagos Island, is an area you will find a gathering of gbogbonise peddlers. On a sweltering afternoon, Munirat Sulaimon, is at work selling Agbo to her customers, her back is soaked in sweat in spite of the cool lagoon breeze. The brownish wrapper she tied around her body makes the beads of sweat visible. The perspiration is beading at her neck cape, then slipping down in quicksilver rivulets to rest on her already sodden waistband. She attends to her customers one after the other and at every attempt she makes to move her wares to the next stop, she is stopped by customers who eagerly call out to her to be served.

She is one of the many local women who sell these native medicines at the motor parks at Ori Yarin. But it is not just pure Agbo peddled by these women, they are often laced with alcoholic drinks with over 40 per cent volume in alcohol content. From investigation, some of the Agbo sellers use industrial ethanol to mix their medicines which are largely patronised by touts and drivers. And on demand, consumers can get tailor-made Agbo mixed with marijuana leaves and left to ferment for days which makes it very hot and concentrated.

This special mixture of marijuana leaves and dry gin is popularly called "Monkey Tail" or "Sepe" by the sellers and their customers. There are also other variants like "pepper soup drink", "god father", "landlord" among others, all laced with various hard drugs and deadly alcoholic drinks.
Ironically, drivers spoken to, say they take these killer mixtures to help their concentration when driving. Akin, a commercial driver, claims "whenever I take "Sepe" I can drive for hours without getting tired. It makes me strong."
But Sayo Amole, a medical doctor at the Baptist Teaching Hospital, Ogbomoso in Oyo State warns that those who patronise gbogbonise peddlers are toying with death. He warns that the herbs sold by the local women which are sometimes mixed with orthodox medicine are not given in the right dosage.

A vendor pours water on boiled cow hide for sale at street-side market in Lagos in a file photo. Almost anything can be found for sale in the city's roadside markets. FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

"Some of the women also sell Alabukun in addition to the herbs. Alabukun is a pain reliever and it can only bring down a high body temperature. Combining this with Agbo is dangerous. It can damage the liver and kidney. Also, the herbs are not well treated as the poisonous substances are not totally removed. The poison can damage the body system even though the patient may be cured but the poison will cause other damage to the body. It is not good for an adult or child."

Sayo Amole's views tally with that of most orthodox doctors who say gbogbonise peddlers may be doing more harm than good to those who patronise them. However, their views have not discouraged many Nigerians who have come to see the knowledge and experience of Nigeria's herbal healers as their salvation from high orthodox medical bills and cure for diseases beyond modern medicine.

High and mighty

It is, therefore, not surprising the number of popular markets known to house the trade of herbal medicinal plants in Lagos metropolis like Mushin, Oyingbo and Agege. These markets are filled with traditional shops with stalls and shelves simply arranged.

Customers to these markets are primarily traditional healers and sometimes patients seeking treatment from the traders that are traditional healers. On designated market days, farmers who serve as commercial collectors bring in fresh herbs to sell from neighbouring towns and villages outside the metropolis. Majority of the herb traders in these markets are women with little or no education. Most of the plants sold in these markets are gathered exclusively from the wild by the vendors. Generally, dried parts of the plants are found on sale except in few cases when the traders have just got them fresh from the wild or when specially requested by a buyer.

There are specific stalls for medicinal plants and even some markets are dedicated to the sale of fresh and dried herbs, mixtures and tinctures, as well as ritual and religious items. These special markets serve as herbal pharmacies for many people in the rural areas and cities of most African countries.

In Nigeria and among the Yoruba speaking people, a group of herbal practitioners who deals with the collection and trade of herbs in these markets are referred to as Elewe Omo. They enjoy the patronage of both the high and low income group for wide variety of illnesses and disease conditions. These are managed and treated using locally available medicinal plants.

Women return from a market in Lagos, Nigeria in this file photo. Herbal sellers in the city are mainly women who say they have learnt their trade has been handed down. FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

No complaint yet

Wale Ekundayo, a researcher at the Forest Research Institute of Nigeria, Ibadan however warns that hough these drugs are effective, the prolonged use of most of these medications can cause renal problems, gastrointestinal irritation and other adverse side effects.

An official of National Agency for Food Drug Administration Control (NAFDAC) says the organisation is yet to get any complaint from people who consume the herbal mixture and they have not been tested yet in their laboratories. However, some herbal tablets products manufactured by PAX Herbals have been certified by NAFDAC which is boldly written on their products.

Tope Adeoya, a commuter is however more worried about the dangers posed by drivers who consumer the alcoholic laced herbal mixtures. He advises that the "Government must take it upon itself to rid these parks of hard drug sellers disguised as herbal cures to prevent drivers from endangering their lives and that of their passengers." He asks: "What manner of reflex, concentration and alertness would such drivers who have loaded themselves with herb mixed with hot drinks and other narcotics have on the steering?"

The business of gbogbonise peddling is however booming. Stimulated by high population growth rates, rapid urbanisation, rural unemployment and the value placed on traditional medicines, the national and regional commercial trade in traditional medicines is enjoying greater patronage from the high and mighty in Nigeria.

Though not as internationally popular as the Chinese herbal medicines which have been given international recognition by modern packaging, gbogbonise peddlers, the Nigerian version of the Chinese barefoot doctor, holds her own on the streets of Lagos and in the rural corners of Nigeria.

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