The Nigerian Catholic Priest Challenging Stereotypes of African Medicine

by Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku
Adodo Anselm Gbenga

Adodo Anselm Gbenga is a Nigerian scholar who is a pioneer of Alternative medicine in Africa. He is also a Benedictine monk and priest of the Roman Catholic Church in Edo state Nigeria. He founded Nigeria’s first Alternative medicine and research laboratory enterprise in Nigeria known as Pax Herbal Clinic and Research Laboratories in 1997.

He started the herbal enterprise as a small herbal clinic venture in Ewu Monastery, meant to offer herbal remedies to common ailments like cough and malaria to nearby villagers. Successes with treated patients meant information about the nascent herbal clinic at the monastery quickly spread to surrounding towns and beyond in a short space of time.

Adodo joined the Ewu Monastery in 1987 where he continues to live, pray, work, and study as a monk and an Alternative Medicine practitioner.

Adodo prefers the term “African Medicine” to “Traditional Medicine”. He defines African medicine as a system of healing grounded in an African world view, culture, and accumulated beliefs and practices, which proffers solutions to physical and spiritual ailments through the use of herbs and other plants. African medicine, he believes, is founded on indigenous, biological, and medico-spiritual theories and concept of the human body; the role of the individual as a member of the community; and their relationship with the community, with the environment and with nature

In this interview, Rev Father Adodo discusses traditional and herbal medicine. He told us that just the way there is English, Indian and Eastern medicines, there is African medicine as well. ‘The only problem is that we have not succeeded in separating religion from our medicine’.


What is the principle behind the production of tradition medicine being used to cure health challenges. Why is this coming from the church in Nigeria? Does this not go against the power of God to heal and cure?

Traditional African Herbal methods of healing or curing diseases is one among the many healing systems in the world. You have the Western and Asian systems where you have Acupuncture, Yoga and the rest. So in Africa, we also have different medical systems like the use of herbs. Then you have the ones that have to do with divination, and the ones that have to do with prayer. That’s why we need to recognise these different medical systems and know which one you have. In Africa people tend to confuse religion with medicine. But they are actually different. So what we do here is try to identify the different categories of medical care. There traditional medical care, the spiritual which has to do with counseling, prayers and rituals, and there is the one that has to do with herbal medicine which is a scientific discipline. It is the knowledge of plants, their names and what they are used for – known as ethno medicine. And so what we practice here in Ewu is ethno medicine which has evolved into scientific medicine. We have moved to the point where we analyse the chemical compositions of these plants.

And you know, there’s no where in the Bible where Christ has said that we must not use herbs. As a matter of fact, the Catholic Church is the biggest promoter of health care systems. It has the largest number of health care systems across the world. In Nigeria the Catholic Church has more hospitals than the government – clinics, health centre. It is actually part of the Apostolate for the CC to have medical care in different dimensions. It is not just the orthodox medical ones – as long as you are brings health care to the people, it is acceptable. Therefore, there’s nothing in what we are doing that’s against the teachings of the Catholic faith.

Please tell us about the book you said you have written on the subject of traditional medicine/healing.

Yes, the book was written in the year 2000, and it is titled Nature Power and subtitled a Christian Approach to Herbal Medicine. The purpose of that book was basically to Christianize traditional medicine practice and to tap into what is good in African traditional medicine so that we can use it to benefit our people. If we do not do this, we still continue to depend on white people to come here and study our medicine and they begin to teach us. So that plant is a collection of common remedies, simple remedies for malaria, typhoid, hypertension, that are common in the society, and the simple remedies that have been used over the centuries in Africa. So the book is called nature power which has been a best seller. The book is actually about Christianizing African traditional medicine. We remove the fetish whatever in it and just focus on plants and what they are used for. When the book was written, it was taboo then to see a priest studying herbal medicine getting involved in native medicine but it was one of the first books that demystified traditional medicine in Nigeria. I made it an open book, resulting in a big contribution that the monastery in Ewu has made to medicine in Nigeria and Africa. Hopefully, future generations will recognise this important contribution that Ewu has made.

So this means that Ewu has nothing to do with a native doctor or herbalist or fetish home?

In another one of my books called Herbs for healing, published in 1999, and came before Nature Power. It made the different distinctions between the different terminologies – the difference between what you call herbalist, native doctor and occult practices. In that book, we tried to make all these distinctions because sometimes people are confused at the use of those terms ‘native doctor’ and ‘herbalist’. In that book, I made all the distinctions in those terminologies very clear. That people are confused about them is one of the problems we are facing now. So when you say Native Doctor, I guess you mean Nigeria, African doctors? If you go back to your history books, our medical doctors were called native doctors by the white people. That term was actually used to describe medical people who were western trained African doctors in the past. And then when the white people returned to their countries, western trained doctors now began to use the same terms to describe the local people. The original native doctors were actually medical doctors. Unfortunately though in Africa, we are still stuck with those terminologies and people just identify a native doctor as someone who does rituals and sacrifices. I agree thsat is ritualism. Even in Europe, you have people who practice ritualism and sacrifices till today. But the medical scientific knowledge in Africa is very advanced. And we in Ewu want to preserve this advanced knowledge. It is very, very important. That is what we are doing, protecting this knowledge.

Most of the time these days, our people go to China and India to learn about their medicines while nobody comes here to learn about ours. Rather we are going to China and India to learn about their medicines. We are preserving African knowledge in medicines and we are appreciated globally. We are playing a very crucial role, and it is good that the Catholic Church is once again at the forefront of that matter and developing it and making it more grounded.

But what separates your work at Ewu from that of People like Chief Priest Osemwengie Ebohon, a traditional herbalist of note in Benin City Edo State?

The African medical knowledge, what we know as herbal knowledge is sometimes or most times located in individual practitioners, people known as healers. Most of them inherited all of these from their parents, what is usually referred to as implicit knowledge – the have it, do not pass it to their children, grow old, die and take the knowledge with them to the beyond. That knowledge is contained in the people. We need to evolve from that trajectory, and make this knowledge explicit – this means you write it down, so that other people can critique and make research on it. It is this kind of approach that made orthodox medicine grow. In orthodox medicine no individual owns any body of knowledge. You keep building on it and keep making inventions. So what makes us different at Ewu is that we want to make traditional medicine explicit. It does not have to be secret. So the native doctor in Benin may have the knowledge for treating Diabetes but he does not have the whole knowledge. He need to come out and learn from the man in Auchi, and the man in Auchi learn from him. There are people everywhere who may have certain knowledge about certain medicines and we need to put all of this together into a compendium. That is when knowledge becomes scientific, – it becomes a knowledge that people can develop so as to find out why it works and how it works. Is it a spirit or the gods that make it work. Enquiries such as this makes it scientific. That’s the big difference between us and the other traditional or herbal healers. It led me to write that book nature power. I have seen a lot of copying from that book, and selling it. That’s what knowledge is all about. This year we launched a book in Abuja, co-authored with Prof Maurice Iwo, former INEC Chairman and a pharmacognosist. We combined more than 300 books from Nigeria West Africa. We wrote about how and why those herbs work. We work with medical doctors in the hospitals. I also lecture at the University of Ibadan, where student can study up to their doctorate degree in ethno-medicine in African traditional medicine. We try to bring these people together; we train them so that the knowledge is not lost.

Sorry Father, this should have been our first question to you: kindly tell us a little bit about your background sir.

I am a Benedictine monk living in Ewu. It is one of the oldest order of monks in the Catholic Church. There is the Dominican, Augustinian and the rest but ours is the Benedictine order. It is a monastic order which emphasizes prayer and study. We don’t have parishes; we live in a community in rural areas where our impact is most felt. I studies as a priest, philosophy and theology. From thence I went on to study botany and ethno medical anthropology, innovation and technology at the masters and PhD levels. I even had to do the PhD twice because my interest kept on growing. This has helped me to see the importance of documentation. I teach in universities in Nigeria and abroad, and I do a lot of writing. I refer to myself an ethno-botanist, a medical anthropologist and a manager of innovation and technology.

What kind of ailments do you focus on sir? What’s your success rate, and how do you know that indeed your herbs are effective?

We have a different approach to measuring the impact of our drugs Just as I cannot go to a hospital and ask a doctor what he or she cures, so it is with traditional herbal medicines. I would say rather that we have a system where we have documented the impact of our herbal medicines at Ewu on very many different therapies – for diabetes, for hypertension, etc. It is a research. I think the best way to look at it is to ponder on how our forefathers have managed these ailments. S There is one of my students at the University of Ibadan who is currently studying the outcome of the treatment of cancer through herbs in Yorubaland. His research covers what cancer is in Yorubaland. I will answer that question by telling you that I do not have a cure for any ailment but that there’s an existing cure available for most ailments in Nigeria. There are many formulas available. From our documentation, we have found existing formulae for hypertension, for diabetes, for cancer, at different levels, this depending on the age and environment of those involved. And in terms of success rate, I would say it is quiet acceptable. We work with doctors and pharmacies, and the success rate is high, at least from the feedback. That apart, we have a standard measurement for what you call success rate: if you were to have 70 to 80 % positive review which needs to be refined and explained further is what we have presently.

How do you process herbs into medicines? How do you know the herbs are efficacious sir? How do you get these roots and herbs?

On my own personal website which I have shared with you, you will see a lot of videos. It is a kind of documentary that has been done. There is one in our production factory that shows that machines that we use in producing the medicines in such a way to show that we have moved from producing crude extracts from just boiling roots into making them into capsules, tea bags and into concentrated powder forms. So that process has been there, and I think we are actually among the first who have refined these processes. In 20 years we have been consistent with the production of those products in terms of very high quality, and to the extent that Pax Herbal has the largest number of NAFDAC approved herbal products in Nigeria. Our registered products are more than 50, more than what is being done by our closest rivals. Our products are approved for public consumption by the Nigerian government. We have MoU with the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research, official medical research institute of Nigeria, NAIMA, NIPRI, we work with the NDLEA, and virtually all the government research and regulatory agencies. We work with them with MoU of research. As far as traditional medical research is concerned in Nigeria, Pax Herbal is number 1 in Nigeria. We have students from universities; there are 15 or 20 universities in Nigeria who send their students here. They are students of Biochemistry, microbiology, Pharmacy. They come here for 6 months to one year for internship programmes. We pay them a stipend to support their transportation to and fro.

The scientific processes involved in our production include starting a diploma and certificate programme both for medical practitioners and traditional healers. For whomsoever is interested in a certificate in the production of herbal medicines.

How do you go about identifying herbs that cure this or that disease sir?

We have to understand that scientists don’t make unproven assertions, especially in the area of medicine and health. We go into communities to find out how they survived some of the ailments they had before modern medicine came to them. So we study them. We also want to find out how they were treating malaria in the past. That’s how scientists behave – they do not start from the blank but from somewhere from existing knowledge and build on it. By that time I was worried that if we don’t preserve this knowledge it would be a tragedy for Africa. The custodians of those knowledges were getting old. That was actually the inspiration behind that my book, Nature Power. So, the knowledge is actually not mine. It is the knowledge of the people that I am trying to make explicit. One of the ways we know a plant is effective is that we find it used by a large number of people, either in the North, South East or West. The name may differ but that does not matter. My research acknowledges them all and tries to find which of those plants is better. I remember one research we carried several years ago at the University of Lagos on a plant called Cida Acuta for malaria. The team did everything they could to extract its active component but at the crucial stage we had to stop that research because money finished. And thereafter the lead scientist died and the research ended. We have done this kind of work for a lot of plants like that and we now discover that the bitter leaf in Iboland may be bitter than the one that grows in the North because of the soil content. And because of that these leaves may treat different things in the body. As a result of that bitter leaf may not produce the same result for everybody. This is what we have been doing here at Ewu: we generate a lot of knowledge and publish and document them. It is a very complicated piece of work. A lot of people think you just go pluck leaves and use them. Its not that simple. It’s a lot more complex and exciting than what people think.

When I was younger and studying ethnography, I went round Nigeria to study the traditional healers. I wanted to find out how they were treating different sicknesses and how they were doing it. While doing so, I was amazed at the amount of knowledge that native doctors had.

Here in Ewu we have a standard diagnostic laboratory manned by a qualified and licensed lab scientist. We first carry out a lab test to confirm if an illness actually subsists; if it is blood pressure, we use the BP Machines to check. It’s the same for glaucoma, High Sugar. We carry out all of those investigations. Already, we have products already formulated for the basic ailments that our people suffer from – malaria, typhoid, glaucoma, etc. All of these are in my book, Nature Power – everything is explained there and easy to understand. We advise anyone who are not responding to our drugs to see a physician. We first make an investigation into the history of the individual seeking herbal help, the person’s age and background. I advise that anyone seeking to know about how we get info concerning the power of our drugs to go and get the book, Nature Power. The book will teach you how to identify the plant for a specific case. We have refined all the crude practices involved in herbal medicine production. Our primary goal is to help people and do so properly.

I may not be answering your questions in the manner you want me to but that’s deliberate. Fifteen years ago I would have been telling you that for malaria, go and take this or that leaf and boil for such and such a time. But we have evolved and gone beyond all of that today.

What’s your position on the quarrel that Orthodox medicine has with herbal traditional medicine? Dosage issues, certification and international acceptance and how has your monastery been able to surmount these challenges?

There’s currently a bill at the House of Assembly in Abuja to officially approve a college of complementary and alternative medicine for Nigeria. And already, traditional medicine has been incorporated into the orthodox medical practices. Herbal medicine is officially added to the health care system in Nigeria, and this was during the tenure of president Goodluck Jonathan. He signed the bill into law, and therefore when they were mentioning health care systems in Nigeria at the Federal, State and local levels, traditional/herbal medicine is now recognised. And so if orthodox medical practitioners are cooperating with traditional herbal people, it is because of the system. We have not properly identified with that system even though the law has already accepted it. Part of the problem is either that the press is not aware of these changes or they are not doing their job properly. So the question you are asking me should have been directed at the Nigerian press. The Bill made specific recommendations on how to recognise a herbal clinic How do you register a traditional clinic? And you know what? Many medical doctors are not even aware of this. So you see why I say we need the media to actually draw attention to this, It would interest you to know as well that many doctors use herbs, I have done a training During Covid as you may have seen, why its not always a good thing to have only one way of curing a disease. So we should ask the press: for the sake of justice and fairness, what are you doing to draw attention to the provisions of this bill? The world must be open to different dimensions of health care, and to healing. That’s what we are doing here at Ewu. Orthodox medical practitioners seem to be the ones mixing things together, that a spiritual healer, the person called native doctor is just one dimension of what we call healing systems – there is music, dance poetry, religious rituals and herbal medicine. There’s a woman here in the village who I call the local pharmacist. If you show her any plant, she will tell you where it grows, what it is used for. It makes her an important library for traditional medicine for scientists and researchers. But the problem too is that she’s getting old. This is the tragedy of Africa, and this is because most of the literature we have were written by white men. But you will recall too that much of the stigma around traditional medicine comes from our own people who over-religionize these issues.

What are the regular diseases you produce these medicines for and how do you produce them?

As I have said, we have more than 50 products approved by NAFDAC, and they are basically for diabetes, hypertension, malaria. Here we look at the problem and we try to provide a solution to it. Prostate Cancer in men is a big issue now even those in their 40s. So what we are doing now is to formulate different herbal products for prostrate. Another area we are focused is breast Cancer. It is a very big issue in Nigeria, and for me, the trend is alarming. Cancer rate in Nigeria is getting very high.

We mostly respond to the needs of the people, and so we produce antibiotics. Concerning the production systems, we have more than 120 members of staff. What you have here is a whole manufacturing complex, and that probably should give you an idea of how big our facility is. Of this 120, they make up different units, raw materials, etc – when the plants are brought, there are those who identify and vet them, clean them. We have all the stages set up. These units have heads who supervise and coordinate the staff members of each unit. Then there are those who work in the kitchen area where we boil water, infusion water and those who cut the trees in pieces. It’s a whole network of activity. Then we have a place called leaf plucking – their job is basically to pluck leaves – they are experts at what they do and in most cases they hardly hesitate to discard a leaf if they are certain that the leaf is unsuitable. What we have here in Ewu is a system, not just one person. When we make our soap, the person who does the first mixture is different from the person who does the second thing. There is a scientist who measures the acidity of the materials. It is a network of production systems. We have a labelling room, we have those who measure the products into bottles work in an automated department. When the US ambassador came here, she was happy at what she saw of us. She said if this were to be in the US, it would be in the news 24 hours. She told us that even by US standards, what she saw here is truly remarkable. Ours is a complex system defined locally. It’s a demonstration that we can achieve a lot if we set our minds to it using our own indigenous African knowledge. The people who produce the herbs are not foreigners. Everything is done locally. Most have different science qualifications – pharmacologists, pharma-prognosis and there are those with just their school certificates working here. In our mushroom lab, the person working there did not study science but we often get PhD university students coming there to learn from him. In UNIBEN, they have a mushroom section but they have not been able to do the tissue culture. But we do everything here. So people come here to learn under him. That is what we refer to as knowledge generation. It is very important. Professors as well come here, and when we discuss some of our processes, they take notes.

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1 comment

Obuh nnekka May 9, 2023 - 4:06 am

Good morning sir, please l am interested in ypur products. My cousin is suffering from epilepsy . l believe that we can get a product from you.


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