Let me start from home. Traditional medicine used to be very popular in The Gambia, like in most African countries. This was necessitated mainly because there are not enough health facilities across the country so people, who are normally settled in the remotest villages, would resort to using traditional medicine in treatment and care of illnesses. For example, growing up at the village, the nearest health facility to us was 10km away with frustrating transportation difficulties. In fact, we walked to the hospital most of the time. The main referral hospital, located in Banjul the capital, is roughly 110km away from my village. Therefore, unless a person’s condition was extremely severe and required urgent allopathic medicine, we were pretty comfortable using herbs and plants. We used moringa to treat malaria, lemon to relieve stomach ailments, soursop to bring down blood pressure levels and bitter kola to treat male sexual dysfunction. Viagra was a luxury, likely known by those living in the cities. Traditional medicine was deeply-rooted in Gambian culture and former president, Yahya Jammeh, tried to revive it in the most dramatic way imagined. Having gone around collecting herbs and combinations across African countries, Jammeh stunned the world in 2007 by announcing he could cure HIV/AIDS using a cocktail of traditional medicine. Furthermore, he claimed he could cure asthma within five minutes and it would only take that long because he has to heat water. He went too far when he started using a hallucinogenic concoction to hunt and shame perceived witches. That didn’t end well. Hundreds of people, mostly the elderly, were forced to drink the concoctions to establish if they were witches or not; some died, while others suffered severe stomach problems. It was a dark chapter in our history.
In the past decade, the population embraced traditional medicine again but the issue of standardisation and regulation has been a problem. We have the Gambia Association of Traditional Medicine Practitioners and Traditional Healers Association, both organisations aren’t effective; the latter in constant squabble with the government, which has been enjoying banning the advertisement of traditional medicine on national media. We have a long way to go but it is a road we must tread because traditional medicine is too valuable to ignore.
On Friday, we had the chance to visit the international section of Dongzhimen Hospital of Beijing University of Chinese Medicine. Established over 60 years ago, it is an expansive general hospital which offers outpatient services to three million people every year, integrating it with teaching and scientific research. The hospital has also trained tens of thousands of students from 79 countries and regions.
Traditional Chinese Medicine has a long history, dating back to thousands of years and still plays a key role in Chinese healthcare system and Dongzhimen Hospital takes centre stage in that cause.
Treating diseases with fragrance
After a brief introduction by officials from the hospital, we had a moment with Sun Yan Hui, who took time to explain to us the traditional Chinese medicine sachets. The sachets, neatly bagged and hanged like jewelleries in different colours, were six in number with various effects. The sachets aren’t actually new in Traditional Chinese Medicine because according to Yan Hui, it was remodelled from 3000 years ago when Chinese doctors used to put herbs into hats or clothes to prevent and treat diseases, especially diseases that don’t necessarily pose a huge threat to our lives but do make us uncomfortable. The sachets also have romantic connotations. The sleeping sachet relieves stagnation and calms your mind. The anti-epidemic sachet dissipates cold and eliminates dampness. The ani-fever sachet eliminates surface moisture, regulating qi and neutralisation. The anti-rhinitis sachet opens the orifices and stops sneezing. The anti-mosquito sachet does exactly as the name says; it repels mosquitoes. The awakening sachet refreshes the mind. Each of these sachets is so sizable and you can hang or place them anywhere; on your backpack, desk, window, in the bedroom or even tie it to your chest. The wisdom is developing a technique to treat irritating diseases and repelling mosquitoes using nice smell. In The Gambia, the most common mosquito repellent is locally called muntiger, which you lit and the smoke pervades the room and sleep before it finishes burning. Once it finishes, the mosquitoes sneak back into your room and have your blood for dinner. The tragic thing, however, is that the smell is so bad you end up having cold because of the smoke. So the Chinese fragrance sachet makes so much sense and I think we could learn and use it in our country as well.
For over 2000 years, Tuina massage features prominently in Chinese medicine. In fact, there is a strong argument that Tuina has been used even before acupuncture to treat musculoskeletal issues such as neck and back pain. Normal massage focuses on joints and muscles through rubbing and kneading but Tuina focuses on balancing the flow of energy within the body through pushing and grasping. It is royal tendon-regulation manipulation, using multiple therapies to treat diseases. There were some good demonstrations at the department for us. I even had the chance to seek professional help about my perennial lower back pain and got some tips.
The department of acupuncture is as old as the hospital itself. It has trained over a thousand foreign students from all over the world on techniques of acupuncture and moxibustion. Using needles and jars attached to the skin, the technique has proven to treat pain and illness for thousands of years. Moxibustion has also clinically-confirmed therapeutic effects. I might return to that department later, especially if my lower back pain persists. I never really trust acupuncturists because they are backstabbers (pun intended). Cupping, however, has been a very common alternative medicine in Islam since time immemorial. The difference is just needles and cups. I also keenly listened to Nancy, who has had some insightful information about auricular acupuncture—ear acupuncture—which involves the stimulation of specific points on the ear. I never saw that before. I didn’t get my back stabbed with needles. I didn’t get cupped. I didn’t get Tuina’ed but ear acupuncture intrigued me. So my ears were acupunctured to relieve pain and provide good sleep.
Shi-ba duan jin
We also had a brief lesson on Shi-ba duan jin, a blend of Eight-Brocade exercise and Tai Chi. Created by Prof. Lyu Renhe, the Eighteen-Brocade Exercise has characteristics of Traditional Chinese Medicine and has been used to treat endocrine and chronic kidney diseases. It is said that after three months of regular Shi-ba duan jin, it can effectively improve the fasting glucose levels of a patient with Type 2 diabetes. This is an exercise I will personally commit to learning because it will come in handy especially now that diabetes just creeps into your system unannounced.
Dongzhimen Hospital of Beijing University of Chinese Medicine is more than just the structures. It’s significance in the world of science is undeniable. What it represents is that inasmuch as China can develop in research, science and conventional medicine, it is important to equally cherish alternative medicine which played and continues to play a cardinal role in the health and knowledge of people for thousands of years.