Qi flows from Beijing to Gaborone

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In 2015 Mmegi Staff Writer, BABOKI KAYAWE*, spent time in China as well as Gaborone, Palapye and Kolonkwaneng in the Kgalagadi district, researching what Botswana can learn from the harmony between China’s indigenous and modern health care systems. She studied the level of harmony between modern and traditional health practices in Africa, lessons for Botswana and what particularly the country can learn as it develops its own Traditional Medicine Practice policy

Both African Traditional Medicine (ATM) and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) have been used since medieval times and are premised on the concept of wholism, which places emphasis on the interrelation of human body and exogenous factors.

However, there have been disparities in their evolution as the former was relegated to the background with the advent of modern medicine and the notion of religion in the Eurocentric view. Meanwhile the latter got international recognition and acceptance.

Just like ATM, TCM is deeply philosophical and takes a holistic approach looking at the body, the soul and the natural environment. It is premised on the notion that the body as a whole is like a circuit of communication. For instance if the eye is sick, you do not just treat the eye – look beyond the eye and fix the whole body. There is an intriguing relationship between the body, soul, nature and the environment.

In fact, at the heart of Chinese medicine is a supernatural energy called “qi”, which is believed to flow from the universe through body parts and helps propel the blood. Blockage of this flow leads to disease. Likewise, African medicine is rooted in belief codes.

 A Kenyan pharmacist based at Tianjin University of TCM, Dr Siambi Kikete, distinctively observes the similarities and differences between the two practices.

“Both are based on the concept of wholism thus placing emphasis on the interrelation of the human body and exogenous factors. In Africa it is primarily the spiritual realm while in China it is predominantly the natural environment. In both cases the passage of knowledge follows the master – apprentice model.”

However, he is quick to point out that the Chinese started documenting their medicine in authoritative works endorsed by their rulers as early as two millennia ago, thus enabling the preservation of knowledge and increasing access to the best medical techniques of the time to many practitioners across China.

“This also formed the basis of medical training. In contrast, many reputable African practitioners kept their prescriptions confidential and unfortunately many passed on with their knowledge,” Kikete says.

Consequently, TCM is to this day engrossed in Chinese culture and many households use it to treat simple ailments that do not require the intervention of a medical practitioner. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said in regard to ATM.

There are stark differences between them. While TCM has been highly commercialised and has garnered international recognition, the evolution of ATM on the other hand has been stunted, with its practitioners and users operating in secrecy for a number of reasons.

The field has garnered not only international recognition but is evolved and highly preserved as a number of colleges and universities in China offer academic programmes on this.

Nonetheless, the effectiveness of any health care regime is connected to the beliefs its people harbour. What becomes of a medicinal therapy then when these beliefs are de-linked from any health care regime?

Prolific Chinese medicine author, Paul Unschuld writes in Medicine in China: A History of Ideas: “In any society, whether a treating system is good or bad does not only depend on its effectiveness. It is also decided by the philosophy of the community and depends on whether they accept the philosophy behind this treating system.”

Professor Zhang Yanqiu who heads the Africa Communication Research Centre at the Chinese University of Communications says Chinese medicine has its existence deeply grounded in belief codes, philosophy and culture.

“For instance, you prepare and heal winter diseases in summer. That is traditional Chinese medicine. For it to be well understood, one has to grasp the philosophy behind it. It is a way of life, a culture,” she says.

But what lessons can Africa and particularly Botswana learn from the evolution of TCM?

Liao Gao Liang is a 60-year-old Beijing-based entrepreneur who trades in the academic books supply sector. Born in the Hu Nan Province, the well-spoken man says he uses traditional Chinese medicine perennially. 

“Yes indigenous Chinese medicine still has a place and value in contemporary times,” he says.

In his view, traditional Chinese medicine does have value and is widely used by the elderly, whose level of embracing and of course exposure to modern medicine is minimal when contrasted with the younger generation. It is interesting, he adds, that the female demography, regardless of age, is still keen on indigenous Chinese medicine, particularly for the treatment of menstruation and related reproductive complications. Gao remarks that traditional medicine has however lost popularity and value among young men as they usually prefer modern medicinal practice. 

The old man posits that Chinese medicine can take a leaf from the outstanding attributes of Western medicine such as its ability to cure faster. But he hastens to add that the process must be done in such a way that China does not lose its indigenous knowledge. 

“It is necessary for traditional Chinese medicine to integrate with Western practices because they both have advantages. If you look at Chinese medicine for instance, it takes longer to cure but the good thing is that it has less side effects.

“As a result, I would say it has to be prioritised when dealing with patients in less critical conditions. On the contrary, Western medicine heals faster, but has many side effects.”

He further adds: “There is a need to harmonise the two and draw best practices from each.”

Chinese medicine enjoys a long history and the fact that ordinary folks, especially the peasants and rural dwellers, have for a very long time seen Western medicine as costly has helped in the former’s preservation, explains Gao.  Moreover, this has facilitated the uninterrupted passage of knowledge from generation to generation. Not only that, but Chinese people have continually harvested abundant medicinal resources from the plains and mountains which in turn has fostered consistent testing and heightened the effectiveness of these herbs.

However, the same cannot be said about African traditional medicine.

Gao says in Africa, there was a period where the knowledge process was disturbed and now the climate situation has transformed. Africa and in particular Botswana have a lot of research to undertake to ensure that the integration of traditional and modern medicine are successful. 

“It takes government efforts to preserve indigenous knowledge. As you say, your government is designing policy to regulate traditional medicinal practitioners, therefore it is critical that both the health care administration, the practitioners and citizens educate themselves on the merits of each health regime in order to achieve a balanced harmony and beneficiation.” Two decades ago, Gao’s father who was a carpenter, lost his sight, a catastrophic development as the old man lost his most precious tool. He could not see the finish of the wood that put food on his family’s table anymore. In a desperate attempt to regain his life back, he consulted a Western doctor.

Unfortunately, the doctor found nothing wrong with the woodman’s eyes and no prescription was availed. The old man trusted the West for a quick recovery, but that was never the case.  For just under one Yuan (P1.71), the carpenter went back to his craft after an assortment of herbs from a Chinese traditional doctor ‘replenished’ his sight. 

“People always interchange these systems. When they have tried the other and it fails, they then resort to the next,” Gao closes, as he takes to attending a customer waiting by the teller machine.

Ma Wei is a 26-year-old Master Degree student at the Communication University of China. She hails from the mountainous province of Xianjiang in Northern China. Wei prefers traditional Chinese medicine because that is what her family uses.

“It is a family tradition that everyone is now following,” she says.  This is an understandable custom considering that her province is home to the famous Tian Shan Mountain where a wide range of Chinese medicinal herbs are found in abundance. 

“The Tian Shan lotus for instance is a good herb that is used to achieve a harmonious relationship between qi and the blood flow,” she says.

Traditional Chinese medicine is not free from challenges. The Tian Shan lotus, otherwise scientifically referred to as saussurea involucrate – is threatened by pollution and warmer climatic conditions that makes it difficult for snow to occur.  “This is worrisome because the fact that Chinese medicine is based on local resources has made it cheaper to access relative to Western medicine which government has imposed import tax on,” says Wei.

The 26-year-old is a proponent of integration of the West and Eastern health care. Wei says the best way to go about the synergy is for Chinese medicine to borrow the techniques to process their own resources. 

“The integration has already started and I can tell you that it has borne positive fruits,” remarks Wei.

“There is a traditional herb women and girls used to treat complications during period pains, called leonurus artemisia in English.  In ancient times it was boiled and the soup would be drank but boiling at a maximum temperature also meant that the nourishing components were destroyed.

“Now, the same medicine is processed using modern techniques that use low temperatures, then it is grinded into a powder form subsequent to drying and then the active ingredient is extracted.” In that way, the integration adds more value to indigenous knowledge. She says China believes that development in any sector cannot be achieved solely based on foreign skills.  “Here in China we believe that one has to get the skills to fish, but don’t just get the fish.”


*This article was produced through funding from China-Africa Reporting Project, coordinated by University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.

Special thanks to China University of Communication Masters students Ma Xinhu and Hu Xiufang who did Chinese to English translations. This is the first part of a two-part series. The second part will be published in next Friday’s edition.

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