Frontier zones are lands of various possibilities for most people in West Africa. Among those who seize the opportunities of a borderland to make a living are Nigerian herbal medicine practitioners from Oke-Ogun who provide healthcare services in Niger. Currently, these practitioners are caught in the web of a global pandemic; COVID-19 has seriously affected their trade and seasonal movement.
Yet, they have been proactive in adapting to the present times.
Middle and low-income homes in Africa are not alien to traditional medicine. A 2006 report by the World Health Organisation shows that traditional herbal medicine accounts for 80% of healthcare in Africa. As a child, I had weekly doses of this herbal medicine called ‘agbo’. Herbal medicine is a prominent form of traditional medicine, whereby the healer, known as the herbalist, specialises in the use of herbs to treat various ailments. For example, ‘jedi jedi’, also known as ‘pile’, is employed to treat malaria fever, typhoid fever, and low sperm count, among other conditions. Herbalists have a thorough knowledge of the medicinal properties of indigenous plants and the pharmaceutical steps to turning them into drugs, as well as their efficacy and toxicity. Herbal medicine is practically the most affordable and easily accessible means of healthcare. This makes herbal medicine appealing and its trading across borders attractive in a region with a weak healthcare system.
Who are the transnational herbal medicine practitioners and what do they do?
Transnational herbal medicine practitioners trade along the Nigeria-Niger border corridor. Travelling across the northern belt of West Africa is quite easy for herbal practitioners from Oke-Ogun, Nigeria, who have the necessary documentation to cross the border legally. The effectiveness and affordability of their medications have created a huge market among the people of Niger from Gaya to Agades; and since most of the herbs used are taken from Oke-Ogun, the job requires cross-border movements. Upon arrival, their similar religion, shared language, and kinship links help endearing them to the local population: herbal practitioners from Oke-Ogun are predominantly Muslim and fluent in Hausa, like the populations on the Nigerien side of the border, and some have married Nigeriens and raised their families in Niger. For those traders whose families are in Nigeria, Islamic holidays always allow them to return to their families at Oke-Ogun.
Walkis and Nojimu are herbal transnational traders from Oke-Ogun who are involved in cross-border trading between Nigeria and Niger. I had met the two herbal traders and their families at Oke-Ogun earlier in 2019, when working on a related project on herbal medicine. On May 7, 2020, I conducted an interview with Walkis and Nojimu about the challenges of the global pandemic and their responses to these challenges.
While Walkis and Nojimu refuse to limit their trade to a specific season (since wellness and wellbeing are important all year long), they believe that there are seasons when they make more sales, periods when their sales drop, and times when they are affected by governmental policies. Among all these, religious festivals have an enormous impact on the movement of practitioners and traders. Being Muslim, they always travel back to Nigeria shortly before Ramadan to observe the holy month with their families and restock for another trip. These periods serve as their holidays on the one hand, and on the other, they allow them to explore more herbs in Oke-Ogun for further exploits when they return to Niger. Nojimu explained that Eid al-Adha is very important and should be observed at home. Away from home, he argued, Eid al-Adha is not a feast.
COVID-19 and its impacts on transnational herbal medicine practitioners
COVID-19 has entrapped these traders at the borders. Prior to the pandemic, in 2019, Nigeria had already closed her land borders to all imported and exported goods, including herbs for medicinal uses. However, humans were allowed to travel. In March 2020, Nigeria closed her land borders again. This time, it was in response to the global pandemic and it affected all travels, both human and goods. The situation worsened very fast, affecting many herbal traders in transit. Many of them were due to return to their homeland shortly before the start of Ramadan. But any thought of that had since disappeared over the weeks. Yet many of them, like Nojimu, were unprepared to face this uncertainty while their families were highly expectant at home.
However, they developed mechanisms to cope with the situation. First, they began to sell herbal remedies to the immune system. Through this business, they kept active and productive at the same time. It also helped them to earn extra cash.
Second, herbal practitioners maintained the recommendations of health officials during this time and helped spread them. Rather than focusing on finding the cure, they were teaching most of their clients how to avoid the virus. Nojimu, in particular, was leading the team of herbal medicine practitioners in his base to educate people in his milieu. Yet, traders were not oblivious of the happenings at home, in Nigeria. They are constantly in touch with their families and regularly give them instructions about what they ought to do to stay safe.
The longer the pandemic lingers, the more unattractive the situation may become for these traders. While the rising demand for herbal remedies helped him cash in more money, Nojimu was already nostalgic about home. Nostalgia always urges returning home as a remedy. Asked if he would stay if the border remains closed for the Islamic New Year, Nojimu responded in a style that may be described as desperate, ‘I must do “Ileya” Eid al-Adha at home, I cannot miss that one. I must kill my meat’. When probed further on how he planned to move provided the border is still closed by then, he continued, ‘There are many routes that enter Nigeria from Niger, I am no longer new to the routes’. These practitioners were quite bent on returning for Eid al-Adha, even if it means through illegal routes to Nigeria.
While Nojimu and many more transnational traders like him have developed coping mechanisms during this period, they may be desperate to be on the move soon. Walkis and Nojimu’s movement during this season is usually tied to the religious holidays; but the larger truncating effects of the COVID-19 border closure on the herbal market and its traders are already disrupting their work, travels, and celebrations.
Oluwasegun Ajetunmobi is a graduate student of Diaspora and Transnational Studies of the University of Ibadan, Nigeria and a Research Fellow at the Institute of French Research in Africa. His works covers labour migration, traditional African medicine, memory, borders and border crossing in Africa.