The Elders Called It Medicine

Namibia is endowed with a large diversity of plants that can be used for medicinal purposes, and over the ages its inhabitants have taken full advantage of their various properties.

The first to settle north of the Orange River – in current day Namibia – were descendants of the San and Khoe, people that have long been known for their otherworldly connection to the spirit world of their ancestors. Through knowledge handed down orally from generation to generation, they were renowned as great storytellers, connected via a creative expression in prose, music, mimicry and dance. Similarly, they were known to be powerful healers and healing sessions often included the consumption of medicinal herbs, accompanied by praise songs for the animals and plants in their environment.

Today, despite modern influences, in many communities traditional healers and medicinal plants still play an influential role in primary health care and represent an integral part of local culture.

The Elders Called It Medicine is the result of a project undertaken among members of two selected descendent communities of the San and Khoe, namely the Ju/’Hoansi San and ǂAonin Topnaar.

“It is the very connection to the spiritual significance of traditional medicine that enticed me to undertake an artistic project with some of the oldest known inhabitants of our country. Their unique position offers a fascinating connection to the natural world – one that is not emphasised sufficiently. Another determining factor was the consideration of their history as marginalised people. Being one of the smallest population groups in the country, and settled primarily in remote areas with little access to modern amenities, in terms of survival they have been left to their own devices for too long – and too little is being done to increase their voice in society.”

The exhibition features a selection of alternative photographic prints – both of the artist and local participants – depicting various medicinal plants still in use by these communities. Through interactive communal activities such as art workshops, field trips and plant identification, the aim of this project was to enhance the connection to local traditions and the natural environment, while promoting art as a creative means of researching cultural knowledge and method to enable a better understanding and renewed sense of appreciation for traditional medicine.

Experimenting with photographic printing techniques of the past and so returning to the origins of visual storytelling, the works presents an almost-primitive alternative to the harsh conventional document that often represents everyday life. Fitting to the subject matter, it calls for an ancient means of engagement and a reconnection of roots.

Ju/’Hoansi San


Medicinal Plants & Uses:

tsama !ahia
Also known as the ‘voëlbos’ or ‘voëlplant’ (bird-bush or –plant), the plant got its name from its ability to prevent children from getting sick as a result of birds stealing their shadows. The roots are boiled and either given to the affected child to drink, or tied in a cloth around his or her neck. In addition, the decoction can also be taken, or the roots chewed as is, to treat colds, while the leaves are steamed and inhaled to cure flu.

!ubu !ubu
The !ubu !ubu is somewhat of a wonder plant in that it is used not only to deter evil spirits, but also to clean the body and skin, as well as treating leg aches and pains. The stem and roots are usually boiled in water, which is then used to bath in. The same procedure is used to prevent bad dreams and spirits from keeping orphan children from a peaceful night’s rest. Roots are also dried, crushed and used as a snuff to treat headaches.

As with many other medicinal plants, the ¹eh possess a multitude of uses. It is seen as a lifesaver when it comes to spending long hours in the bush, as the root is loaded with a liquid that acts as the perfect thirst quencher, despite its bitter taste. The liquid is also known to give power to the heart and is used as a body wash. When a woman is about to give birth, the liquid is rubbed on the stomach to speed up the labour process.

ing ing
Known for its ability to work as natural contraceptive, the roots of the ¹ing ¹ing is boiled in water and the infusion taken when needed. The concoction will not secure the user permanent prevention against pregnancy, but only works as taken.

are !aia
The beloved plant, or are !aia, is used to ignite love between two people. It is simply chewed and spat near the person to be affected by its powers. The effects are usually short-lived and are more meant in a playful way than as a serious action.

The !kau is known as the San’s incense and the entire plant is thrown into the fire to deter spirits and snakes. Medicinally, the root is boiled in water and the mixture taken to keep the body healthy and to prevent bad spirits and nightmares from entering one’s dreams.

!ah n/ing
The perfect cure to heal burn wounds, the roots are dried, crushed into a powder and applied to the affected areas.

The paté works somewhat like a modern-day injection in that it is applied directly into the bloodstream. The plant is crushed into a powder, which is then rubbed into an open wound or a cut made in the skin. It is primarily used to treat back and leg aches.

ǂAonin Topnaar

Medicinal Plants & Uses:

Hailed as the Topnaar ‘life-elixir’, the !nara boasts plenty of uses, from being enjoyed as chocolate and coffee replacement, as soap and sunscreen, or even as rust remover. It is medicinally trusted as cure against high blood pressure and diabetes, taken to clean the blood, stop diarrhoea or flush the bladder and uterus. The plant is not to be used as treatment by pregnant women, as it could bring on an abortion.

A hardy tree of salty nature, the branches of the daweb are used as means of purification – to keep bad luck and evil spirits from entering the household upon the death of a family member. By tradition, branches are soaked in water and the salty droplets sprinkled over sleeping people, animals and household items by the closest family member of the deceased. Medicinally, the roots are boiled in water and the decoction taken to cure stomach cramps, indigestion and diarrhoea.

autsi /khanneb
Also called the ‘bitterbos’ after its notoriously bitter taste, branches of the plant is boiled and used as a body wash against skin rashes, acne and infection; a decoction is taken to treat fever and colds, gonorrhoea, chest and stomach pain; or is used as sleeping aid. Warmed leaves are applied as poultice to relieve infection, and squatting over a pot of steaming branches will treat a bladder infection.

The tsabis, or false ebony as it is also known, is favoured as toothbrush by chewing the roots and working it between the teeth. The berries are enjoyed as a snack, although in moderation, not only because of its astringent taste but also because eating in excess is known to cause liver problems. The wood of the tree is widely used as firewood and in construction.

The pale grey, hard and hairless stems of this erect half-shrub are used to clean the teeth. Stems and roots are chewed to relieve stomach ache, while an extraction of these can also be taken for the same purpose. The fruits are edible and when young can be eaten completely, but when older only the insides are consumed while the outer peel and seeds are removed. It is a snack favoured by children.


*It should be noted that despite original intentions of documenting indigenous knowledge/common names and referencing these with botanical plant names, due to the nature of passing down knowledge orally over generations, it proofed almost impossible to trace locally used names to scientific roots, especially amongst the San. Plant names and information were thus referenced as per participants’ accounts, and for the purpose of this project was limited to common names*


The Elders Called It Medicine was made possible by funding from the National Arts Council of Namibia.

©Marita van Rooyen, 2018