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Alternative medicine in Ghana part two: Herbal remedies for the common cold

Herbalist Kofi Budu at his home in Akwadum

Ghanaian herbalist Kofi Budu with his cure for the common cold: mahogany bark. Photo by Antoinette Sarpong.

By Antoinette Sarpong

When you’re living and working in a foreign country, at some point you can expect to get sick. So I wasn’t surprised when I came down with a cold last weekend.

What was surprising, though, was the strong disclaimer from the Ghanaian doctor that accompanied my prescription: “This will purify your blood,” he said, cupping the bark of a mahogany tree in his hands. Incidentally, this traditional Ghanaian cure for the common cold was also what the doctor ordered for infertile women. “When you drink this, you will conceive,” he said.

More interested in boosting my immunity than I was in babies and booster seats, I, like many Ghanaians, took the doctor’s words quite seriously. There are roughly 45,000 traditional healers in Ghana, with rural areas being the mecca for traditional medicine due to the high cost of mainstream medicine, doctor shortages and the deep spiritual beliefs that are often attributed to the causes of diseases in these regions.

I’ve always been curious about the efficacy of herbal remedies. My interest peaked following the recent arrests of illegal drug and aphrodisiac vendors at two of Accra’s major transportation hubs, Kaneshie Market and Nkrumah Circle, by Ghana’s Food and Drugs Board. It was a friend’s recommendation that led me to the office of 78-year-old herbalist Kofi Budu at his secluded house in the bushes of Akwadum, a small village in eastern Ghana. 

Mr. Budu claims to have cured “countless” patients — both Ghanaian and foreign — of ailments ranging from diabetes and epilepsy to breast cancer and even AIDS. He does this, he says “with very potent herbs and roots” from his backyard.

After placing my prescribed bark into in a small plastic bag, Mr. Budu asked me to purchase potassium nitrate and M&B 760 from a drugstore to complete my prescription. The former is typically used in Western medicine as a diuretic, while the latter is an antibacterial.

Normally, Mr. Budu would mix the ingredients for me, but I had a long, bumpy journey back to Accra and it was getting dark. As the herbalist explained how I should boil my medicine, I stared at tree bark that he believes holds the key to curing some of the world’s deadliest diseases.

“So you’re telling me that you can cure cancer and AIDS?” I asked. “I’m telling you,” said Mr. Budu, with confidence. “I tried a medicine to treat about 10 people with AIDS and I was successful.”

Though section 18 of Ghana’s Food and Drugs Law prohibits the manufacturing of any drug that has not been registered with the Food and Drugs Board, many herbalists in Ghana have claimed to have found cures for serious illnesses like cancer and AIDS. However, doctor-patient confidentiality rules and the difficulty of actually finding a former patient to substantiate these claims leave much speculation about the effectiveness of herbal remedies.

Mr. Budu has been practising herbal medicine since 1942, having trained with his late father who was also an herbalist. He has absolutely no doubt in the efficacy of his medicine.

“African herbs are extremely powerful,” said Mr. Budu. If you know someone who is sick, bring them to me and I will cure them. You will see I am telling the truth."

Mr. Budu didn’t charge me for my prescription because he said my restored health would “get the word out” about his medicine. So I made the rocky four-hour journey back to Accra and headed to a pharmacy near my home to pick up the necessary ingredients to concoct my cold cure. Surprisingly, they were sold out of M&B 760, at not one, but three local dispensaries. So I’d have to unlock the mysteries of Mr. Budu’s herbs another time.

In the meantime, already feeling refreshed from a plentiful dose of clean country air, I’ll settle for alternative medicine from my childhood: Advil, my bed and some chicken noodle soup. 


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Your last name is Sarpong but u consider urself a foreigner. Where are u really from? very interested to know.

Also, what is the point of ur article as u knew u were not going to abide the traditional herbalist's recommendations anyway?
As a RN born, raised and educated in Ghana but practising in Toronto for decades, I know these herbalists exist & locals without the resources u and I have depend on them for 'survival'. I find no usefulness in ur trip to the herbalist or the article other than to ridicule.

Please tell us what happened to your cold - did the herbs eventually work? Otherwise, what's the point of the article? The title has created suspense and we are left hanging waiting the for the answer. Thanks.

Many villages in Ghana also village their elders are 130 years old. Everywhere I went claimed to have several people in their 120s.

My friend Sam, Canadian MD is came from this country and said to me some stories about herbal medicine. I believe it as I am a chinese herbal researcher. herbal medicine for cold, arthritis, diabetic, lose weight , sex ability...(not include cancer and AIDS) in safety that are not a big deal. If you ( news reporter ) are interesting it, please contact me. be my third party to verify the efficacy and safety of herbal medicine. one of herbal product is available in market with Health Canada NP Number. The product sold at low price but offer no side effect to protect the patient. not like some synthetic medicine can harm liver or kidey at the end.

Herbal medicine can work fine too!!

I followed Justine's tweet here. :) Great article. I wonder if the dependence on traditional meds would be as such if generic pharmaceutical products from the West became more accessible? What would locals prefer? Looking forward to reading more!

I have a formula for making an anti bacterial ointment. It was given to my ancesters 160 years ago by gypsies (Roma) in England after my ancesters heped them in some way. My ancsters were sworn not to reveal the formula and to the best of my knowlegde they never have. It works even on cat bites.

I came down with typhoid a few years ago in Ghana. Took cipro to cure. It would not take care of the typhoid. I decided to do as the locals do and went to an herbalist. Got a mixture of roots that I had to drink twice a day. After trying western meds for over a month, the herbal mixture cured me in 7 days.

I have seen first hand how string the elders are in Ghana. It's extraordinary.

It's a shame you didn't follow through with the herbs. Seems a bit misleading your article.

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