A Story of Medicinal Plants From the Ogiek of Kenya

By Fidensio Kinyamu Ndegwa

An Ogiek hunter in the traditional attire of a tree hyrax skin

In the Rift valley of Kenya, near Nakuru town is Mau forest. Mau forest is an important water tower, a source of numerous important rivers, including the Southern Ewaso Ng’iro, Sondu, Mara, and and Njoro. The Mara River is particularly important because the story of the wildebeest migration in Maasai Mara National Park is known the world over. The Sundu River empties into Lake Victoria where a hydroelectric power project is currently being constructed. On the eastern side of this forest lies the East Mau Forest, home to the famous Ogiek community for close to a quarter century.

They are referred to as “Dorobo Il Torobo” by the Maasai community. This term is derogatory because by the Maasai standards any community that has no livestock but survives on wild game is poor. Their proper name is the Ogiek, which means “caretakers of both plants and animals.” Genealogically, they are either an independent lineage or an assemblage of many communities who decided to adopt a life of hunters and gatherers. Their traditional diet consists of wild game meat and honey. They are also expert bee-keepers. In fact, the tree hyrax is their delicacy. The Ogiek are a community of forest dwellers who have survived without modern medications for disease treatment because they have little access to primary health care. Research was carried out on this community to determine their ethno medicine in order to document this vital information in view of the rapid deforestation that is taking place in many Kenyan forests, including East Mau.

ogiek diagram
The diagram above shows progressive development of medicine, with
Engleromyces goetzei P. Hennings, the most important medicine of the Ogiek

The justification and objective of this work are that the medicinal plants are very important, yet they are disappearing before they are documented. A survey of medicinal plants was carried out, and questionnaires were used to interview 427 adults in the East Mau Forest. Plant specimens were collected and identifi ed at the East African Herbarium in Nairobi. The number and type of medicinal plant species and the harvesting methods were investigated in 100 quadrats; the data were analysed statistically; and 119 species of medicinal plants were documented. Ninety-eight percent of the respondents indicated that they use medicinal plants, with Engleromyces goetzei P. Hennings as the most important source of medicine.

This fungus grows on bamboo in undisturbed ecosystems. Its population is reducing due to the open canopy that is being created by the on-going destruction of the forest. Some of these plants are used in conventional medicine such as castor bean (Ricinus communis).

Most of these plants were still abundant, and their harvesting was non-destructive, as is evident from the photographs below.

charcoal burning in east mau forestThe most important ailments treated by medicinal plants were stomach problems, malaria, and colds. Roots, leaves, and stem bark were the plant parts most commonly used.

The main implications of this study are that much can be learned from this community on how to utilise traditional knowledge for conservation of nature. In conclusion, it is worth investigating whether the success of the Ogiek in the use and conservation of medicinal plants may be duplicated elsewhere in the management of ecosystems.

Fidensio Kinyamu Ndegwa is an ethnobotanist, PhD student in Pharmacognosy, Member: Society for Economic Botany (SEB), Member: SSC (MPSG)-IUCN, and Member: CEM (SUME)-IUCN. Email: fndegwa2006@yahoo.com