You could say the roots of my China association grew in the backyard of my home in Accra, capital of Ghana. Back home, many people use herbal medicine for various diseases. I would say about 70 percent of Ghanaians use roots and shoots of herbs as the first line of treatment. But the scientific aspect of the treatment is not so well developed in Ghana. Not everyone who uses herbs knows what the exact dosage should be. So when the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana decided to establish a course where it attaches science to the use of herbal medicine, I was intrigued and signed up.
I am interested in refining and modifying traditional dosages into modern and more accurate ones. Both China and India have well-developed traditional medicine systems and I was interested in both. But the Chinese Government offers scholarships in Ghana and that tilted the balance. I did my master's degree in Chinese materia medica or traditional Chinese pharmaceutics at the Tianjin University of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for three years from 2010. Now I am in Shanghai, doing my Ph.D. in discovering new drug leads from medicinal herbs in Ghana.
Shanghai doesn't feel like China. It's more cosmopolitan and more westernized. People are more educated and open-minded. However, despite the advancements, Africa still remains a mysterious place to them. So I am not only a researcher in Shanghai, but also a Ghanaian ambassador, telling people more about the country I come from.
One summer, when I took a taxi, it was so hot that I asked the taxi driver to switch on the air conditioner. In response, he turned his head round, gave me a marveling look and asked, "Isn't it hotter where you come from? Isn't your skin dark because of the sun?"
I explained to him patiently that in Ghana the summer temperature stays between 25 and 33 degrees Celsius, whereas in Shanghai it shoots up to 40 degrees Celsius.
The interaction that I enjoy more is talking about traditional African medicine. Once I was unwell and went to a clinic. The doctor, seeing I was a foreigner, asked me if I would like to be prescribed Western medicine or TCM. I said, "We also have traditional medicines in Ghana, so please give me TCM."
She was surprised and then curious. She wanted to know more about the traditional medicine in Ghana, especially how it was different from TCM. I told her TCM is more developed and institutionalized. It has a firm system, complete with the concept of yin and yang, which together provide perfect balance. You fall ill when the balance is upset. Then there are the five elements - wood, fire, metal, water and earth - one or the other of which will prevail over the others from time to time.
In Ghana, we have something called koko. When you suffer from koko, it could be anything from food, the environment or age-related ailment. However, ultimately we all end up using herbs.
The lab where I do part of my research has Chinese researchers. They are familiar with African plants and also show a lot of interest in African herbal medicine. When Chinese scientist Tu Youyou won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2015 for discovering artemisinin, the drug used to treat malaria from the sweet wormwood plant, it struck a special chord.
Malaria still remains the number one disease causing the death of children below five years and pregnant women in Africa. And we too have a herbal treatment for the disease. We make a decoction from the root of a creeper called nibima in Ghana, the cryptolepis sanguinolenta, which is generally drunk three times a day.
The recent work in malaria treatment I saw in Ghana is using a combination of both herbs, using them alternately so as to prevent the malarial parasite from becoming resistant to treatment. That is like a perfect yin-yang to me, together we can do wonderful things.
(Mike Aggrey is a Ghanaian Ph.D. candidate studying in Shanghai)