By Jeffrey Moyo
Tambudzai Mbiza, standing on a street corner in downtown Harare, the Zimbabwean capital, rummages through numerous bottles filled to the brim with blends of different herbs dipped in water. More clients swarm around the bottles of herbs, lining up on the street pavement, with many buying quickly before vanishing from the scene.
“For a running stomach, this herb, which I mix with water, I need two dollars. I treat every disease with herbs here,” 60-year old Gift Hwiza, a traditional herbalist, told Anadolu Agency.
For many Zimbabweans like Mbiza, who said he suffers from prostate cancer, roadside herbalists have become an alternative as the country’s public healthcare system faces collapse amid spiraling costs.
“Prostate cancer is the disease troubling me and my money is now finished as I have been all over visiting hospitals for treatment,” he tells Anadolu Agency.
“Most times, even if I’m supposed to see doctors, I have not been able to see them because you are kept on the waiting list for months on end. As such, herbs have become the way to go for me,” Mbiza adds.
In Zimbabwe, patients have to part with at least $20 in consultation fees when seeing a general practitioner, who then refers them to a specialist, where patients further part with between US$50 to US$80 each in consultation fees.
According to World Bank data for 2016, Zimbabweans’ average annual income was only $940, making such fees potentially ruinous.
The crisis faced by many Zimbabweans in accessing affordable medical care worsened at a time when over 90 percent of this country’s approximately 13 million people are not employed and like Mbiza, have no access to medical aid.
“I have been to doctors several times before and each time I have been there, they have always given me some prescriptions to buy medication from pharmacies, which I can’t afford since I am not employed,” says Mbiza.
Thanks to the desperation faced by many Zimbabwean patients like Mbiza, street herbalists such as Hwiza in the Zimbabwean capital have stolen the show by selling medicinal herbs to desperate patients fleeing high medical costs in hospitals.
-'It is a business'
“To me, it is business as usual although I feel pity for the patients who can’t get modern medical help nowadays here,” Hwiza.
“I make $40 per day selling herbs. But surely, I have no control over the challenges many people face here in getting medical help from clinics and hospitals … they come to people like us to then get herbs for treatment.”
However, little comes from the Zimbabwean government to salvage the situation.
A senior official from Zimbabwe’s health ministry, speaking anonymously to Anadolu Agency, said: “We either have the medicines or not, and patients have to find their own options if they can’t get medicines and where they get it, the government can’t be liable, although we know patients are flocking to roadside herbalists to get herbs for treatment.”
In this southern African nation’s healthcare centers, medical help remains unaffordable to many.
Consequently, roadside herbalists like Hwiza, whose services are affordable for many jobless Zimbabweans, pose as medical experts, unregulated by government.
Another herb seller in Harare, 71-year old Mudadi Chuma, tells Anadolu Agency: “I have never undergone any training in traditional medicine.
“My ancestral spirits just give me visions in my dreams on the herbs that I should get to treat sick people and I go out into the bushes to get the herbs.”
Yet to many patients seeking help from herbalists like Chuma, they have had no option except to turn to the herbalists whose experience they are unaware of.
“We have very little money and that’s why you see us opting for herbalists. Maybe we will survive through their help,” Ruramisai Ngoma, a 29-year old HIV/AIDS patient, told Anadolu Agency, claiming the herbalists say they treat every ailment.
Despite the trust many like Ngoma have in herbalists, the Medicines Control Authority of Zimbabwe has stated it is battling to control the influx of backyard physicians.
“Economic difficulties are driving people toward street herbs because they can’t afford to buy recommended medicines,” Richard Rukwata, a spokesman for the medicines regulatory body, told Anadolu Agency.
“Yes, we know there are people who are seeking herbal solutions to their illnesses because they want to evade high costs of our health delivery system, but unregulated street medicines can pose a danger to human life," Rukwata added.
However, as many AIDS patients like Ngoma resort to herbal medicines, experts like Rukwata have been discouraging people from becoming too comfortable with roadside herbs.
“Traditional or modern medicines are very dangerous if not used correctly and there is a need for serious regulation,” he said.