I’d been told that an old and well-known herbalist was willing to meet me to talk about his work. He lives at a monastery 18 km out of Addis, so Lakew picked us up early one morning and we traveled north to Menagasha.
On the outskirts of the city we passed acres of huge flower greenhouses, which are taking up so much land and apparently rendering it useless for growing anything much at all in the future. Past these, Lakew pointed to one densely treed area with cottages in the distance and said it belonged to the Fistula Hospital – I think it may have been the Desta Mender Centre for permanent residents, who have been treated for the injury but who cannot return to a normal life in their village or community.
We arrived at the home of Merigeta, a herbalist/priest who has built a church near his home and sees many patients a day.
Before he appeared, we met his assistant, who asked us to sit on a long bench under a plum tree and brought us a plate of the small fruit, inviting us to eat. Lakew looked at me and said “Ah well, let us pray they are ok,” and we wiped off the dust and hoed in.
Spread out on the ground before us were two large squares of plastic, on top of which were the chopped roots and bark of two different herbs; Moyder (Socotora visciformis) and Ketetano. Chooks were flapping around the compound. Another man was chopping small bits off a large log with an axe (this I think was the Moydur), and two women were sorting through chips of wood which Alemayehu told me was for making Talla (a fermented drink which his mother used to make).
Then Merigeta emerged from a dark doorway (which was the room where he saw his patients – the clinic) and greeted us. I had asked Lakew the Amharic for formal respectful greetings and managed that. He is an elderly man, wearing a woollen beanie and a suit, and with twinkling eyes and few teeth. He and Lakew had a chat and he nodded at me a bit; we could only really smile at each other. Anyway, this wasn’t the time for questions yet.
He sent us out with his assistant, Isayat, to fossick for some herbs a little way down the road. We pulled over next to a fairly steep hillside, scrambled up (Being a ferenji, scrambling up and down the hillside created more than a few toots from passing traffic!) Isayat stopped us by one plant and brought out his small hoe to started digging it out. In this way, to Lakew’s particular delight, we were given four herbs to take to Fiche; Ketetano, Mbway (two varieties) and Moyder. Lakew was demonstrably thrilled; “Lizzie, Lizzie, Lizzie, I cannot believe this!” He said that he had forgotten so much and it was coming back to him, he’d not used this knowledge for so many years.
Back at the compound, Merigeta eventually reappeared and invited us into his consulting room: a dim room with two beds piled with hides, mud walls covered with religious paintings and a photo of Merigeta as a younger man. A bible, some books and a telephone.
We attempted some conversation. It is frustrating not having the language to understand all the discussions. Lakew and my son, Alemayehu, are good at translating, but it does take time. Lakew formally explained our mission, describing what I do as a Medahnit awaki (herbal healer) in Australia, and who Alemayehu was. I asked if we could take photographs but he declined, saying he did not want much publicity. He had no problem telling us about the herbs though, so we moved to the shade outside and spent a good while there talking.
Amongst other plants, I asked about Moyder and what he used it for. He said it had about a dozen applications including:
- Evil eye (buda) – as incense
- Seizures (where someone is inhabited by Satan) or Epilepsy – given as liquid
- Stomach problems
- Given as a broth before pregnancy for Rh factor (for preventing Hemolytic disease in babies)
Moyder is a bitter herb and I explained we often used bitter herbs for stomach problems and liver. Ketetano, he said, is similar to Moyder in some applications. It is also an Aphrodisiac. I asked “Just for men or for women too?” which caused much amusement. Merigeta said that women benefit too (this was a bit ambiguous!)
When I asked who he would be passing all his knowledge and experience on to, he said “no-one, there is no-one.” He had, however, written a text which he’d given away to some people, and said we’d be able to obtain.
Merigeta had to leave us at this stage because two patients had arrived to see him. Lakew stayed a while, talking to Isayat and putting the newly collected herbs into some soil in plastic bags. We sat quietly, taking in the peacefulness of the scene, ate some more sour plums and then made off for the half hour drive back to Addis.