Plants used for Women’s Health and Childcare in Benin and Gabon

The project “Plant use of the Motherland: linking West-African and Afro-Caribbean Ethnobotany” is a research initiative by Dr. Tinde van Andel, funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) in 2010. It will be the first comparative study of ethnobotany in both the African and American continents, supported by fieldwork in Suriname, Ghana, Benin and Gabon. It is constructed around the central research question: “How African is Afro-Caribbean plant use?” and focuses on the following three components: (1) medicinal plants in trade, (2) plants for African and Afro-Caribbean rituals, and (3) plants used for women’s health and child care.
The Ewe-Fon ethnic group, now living in present-day Benin, and Bantu-Kikongo-speaking people from the Kingdom of Loango, currently living in Gabon, were two of the largest African populations brought to the Americas for slavery. During this forced migration, they were not only challenged to maintain their culture under severe circumstances, but also to find useful plants similar to those of their homeland. Set within the framework of Dr. van Andel’s larger research question, this research project will addresses women’s and children’s medicinal plant trade and use in Benin and Gabon.
Century-old traditions have shaped the use of plant species in fertility, magic, and the survival of children among the Ewe-Fon of Benin and the Bantu-Kikong of Gabon. Because of the many taboos surrounding these issues, and the fact that until recently most researchers and informants happened to be male, women’s plant knowledge has been long neglected in studies on herbal medicine. This is a remarkable contradiction, as gynecological morbidity and infant mortality are among the most severe health problems in the Third World. In rural areas, where health centers are poorly equipped, women and children depend largely on traditional medicine. Doctors and anthropologists have expressed their concerns about the frequent use of herbs in women’s health and childcare, but little information is known on the actual plants involved in these practices. Which plant species are used for fertility, childbirth and menstruation in Benin and Gabon? What is the role of herbal medicine in the care of young children? From which vegetation types are these plants harvested? Are plants used for these purposes mainly cultivated or secondary weeds?

Fieldwork including market surveys, plant collection, and interviews will be carried out for six months in each of these two countries and the results will be used in comparing similar plant use amongst the Maroons of Suriname and the Fante-Akan of Ghana. Outcomes from this study can (1) help healthcare professionals design culturally appropriate education programs, (2) contribute to the process of integrating traditional and modern health care in West Africa, and (3) support the conservation of these plants via local and regional environmental resource organizations.

About Alexandra M. Towns

Alexandra discovered her interest for ethnobotany and traditional knowledge systems while working as an agricultural extension agent in rural Niger. From 2006-2008, she worked with a women’s sesame seed cooperative, supported various community gardening projects, and collaborated with farmers and local organizations to help improve household food security. She also spent many mornings collecting wild plants with village youth and discussing their uses with female elders. Alexandra returned to Niger in 2009 to conduct ethnoecological research for her M.Sc. degree in International Agricultural Development from the University of California, Davis. This study employed participatory methodologies to identify wild plant and fish species and investigate their role in the local food system. Ms. Towns also holds a B.A. degree in International Studies from Towson University. In December 2010, Alexandra joined Netherlands Centre for Biodiversity-Naturalis and the National Herbarium of the Netherlands in Leiden University as a PhD researcher. She studies plants used for women’s health and childcare in West Africa as part of the project “Plants of the Motherland: Linking West-African and Afro-Caribbean Ethnobotany.”
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