Maasai Knowledge of Medicinal Plants



Studies on the Maasai way of life have shown that they have a primary interest in the preservation of fauna and flora in their surroundings and thus in so doing they nurture and maintain a large amount of the world’s life diversity (Minja 1998).

From time immemorial the Maasai have relied on plants for nutritious as well as medicinal substances. For this reason plants have become the most revered, and treasured friends in the Maasai world. For many years through intimate association with the natural grasslands, most pastoralist Maasai recognize almost every plant in their range lands and pastures (Ole Lengisugi 1996). As famous pastoralists, the Maasai are mainly concerned with the ecological sustainability of the land for the well being of people, animals and plants. Modern science sees adaptive flexibility of pastoralism as an ecologically sustainable way to use the spatial and temporal variation of arid and semi-arid rangelands (Rodgers 1992). On the other hand, there is a growing concern about limitations of the western model of veterinary medicine in many pastoralist systems. This is not only due to factors such as cost of drugs but also to issues of drug abuse, including adulteration and improper use arising from lack of knowledge and potentially leading to drug resistance. In addition there are increasing concerns about toxic residues in foods and the environment at large as a result of western medicines.

Ethno botanical information is widespread especially among the Maasai warriors who are charged with the task of protecting their herds from enemies, famine and against diseases. However, experienced healers who happen to be aged (above fifty years) and Laibon are more experienced in this field and are consulted from time to time. These experienced “ethno botanists” know exactly which part of the plant should be taken at which time. In some plants active ingredients are concentrated only in the core of the wood, in others only in the seeds and still in others the active ingredients are concentrated in leaves, stems, flowers or in the roots. Sometimes the active ingredients are distributed throughout the whole plant. Utilizing these plant parts to a large extent and to smaller extent other natural resources like anthill soil, yeast, animal fat, soot, etc. the Maasai pastoralists are able to confidently contain different disease conditions afflicting their animals from time to time. On the basis of the evidence available, not only in veterinary medicines but also human medicine, it is reasonable to believe that there is at the very least a complementary role for traditional disease coping strategies and indigenous treatments alongside modern drug therapy. The advantage of combining both approaches in human medicine has been described by Wood (1987).

Above we said that the MAA community originated from Asia Minor (Mesopotamia). It is quite evident that the community traveled on foot long distances for many years to reach East African areas. During this traveling period the Maasai themselves and their cattle herds were subjected to different types of diseases. Obviously many people and cattle died. The surviving communities had to research herbal plants to enable them treat the sick people and their sick cattle. There were two distinct approaches that the MAA community took to tackle illness for animals or human beings. These approaches were natural and supernatural. The natural approach emanated from the understanding that illness is a result of a disturbed physical equilibrium, while the supernatural approach referred to actions of persons believed to be sorcerers or agents of earthy gods and evil spirits (witchdoctors).

The MAA community had amongst them the strong medicine men known as Iloibonok, who had great knowledge of curative plants. These medicine men had an important role in ensuring that man and his livestock remained healthy regardless whether the sickness was natural or supernatural. Today the knowledge of these curative plants is no longer reserved only for the Iloibonok but has already spread to the whole community.