2002, John Evans, Malawi, Medicinal Plants

Travel Scholarship To Malawi

by John Evans

In May 2002 I undertook a four week trip to Malawi thanks to the generosity of various bodies, particularly the Kew Guild. The aim of my trip was to investigate measures being taken to conserve the medicinal plants most used by traditional healers (whose survival is seriously threatened by over collection and destruction of natural habitats) and to assess the environmental awareness education in the Botanic gardens.

The trip began in Zomba (in the south) at the National Herbarium and Botanic Garden at the base of the beautiful Zomba Mountain. I was shown round the garden, particularly the nursery area where they propagate medicinal plants for local healers to grow on, as well as running clinics to teach propagation skills and sustainable collecting techniques, and also a service identifying plant samples which healers bring to them.

I visited a recently developed medicinal conservation garden in Mwanza with the local traditional healers association chairman, where the local healer manages a small area of land containing both wild and cultivated medicinals, providing materials for the local healers. I was also taken to a small medicinal garden in Govala village near Zomba, where medicinal plants were grown amongst the crops.

I travelled from Zomba to Lilongwe in the Central region to visit the Lilongwe Botanic Garden, which is managed to allow natural regeneration of indigenous species and maintains certain plant collections, particularly Aloes, fruit trees and wildflowers. They, too, run workshops for traditional healers and allow collection of certain materials within the gardens.

For the final part of my trip I drove to the North to Mzuzu, to visit Hassam Patel at the Mzuzu Botanic Garden. This is more a managed piece of woodland/scrub than a garden, containing many naturally occurring medicinal plants, where the main problem is stopping local people from collecting medicinal plants. We visited the Masinga evergreen forest, which although not rich in medicinal plants is an important remaining pocket of indigenous forest which is being rapidly depleted in Malawi.

Hassam also took me to the purpose built Environmental Education Centre and to Nkhata Bay on Lake Malawi which, with its white sand and blue waters, was more reminiscent of a Caribbean beach!

The most memorable part of the trip was a visit to a tiny village in the heart of the country. After a seemingly endless drive across flint roads, mud tracks and fields, we arrived at Embangweni, where four generations of healers from the same family were keen to show us their contribution to plant conservation. The whole village walked with us, to look at the nursery area they were constructing, the field where medicinal plants were being grown and the small patch of untouched indigenous woodland. The women sang the whole time (because they were happy to have visitors) and cooked a meal for us of Nsima (the staple maize dish), eggs and deliciously crunchy fried ants. I was given a live chicken, which accompanied us in the back of the car on the three-hour drive back to Mzuzu!

I had a fantastic time in Malawi and learnt a lot, not only about medicinal plants, but also about a whole new culture and country I had never experienced before. I am very grateful to the Guild for providing me with the opportunity to undertake such an unforgettable trip.

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