Namibia’s Desert Pharmacy

Namibia is purported to have some of the most beautiful postage stamps in the world. But what’s more fascinating are the stories behind the artful images they depict—plant and animal life, traditional cultures, history and landmark events. Many people are unfamiliar with Namibia—until they visit on our motorcycle safaris and fall in love with her.

Here we get to know two treasures from Namibia’s desert pharmacy—Hoodia and Devil’s Claw. 

desert pharmacyHoodia is a flowering, cactus-like plant native to Namibia’s Kalahari desert. Today it’s highly sought after by western cultures for its appetite and thirst suppressant properties. That’s no surprise to the indigenous San who for millennia ate hoodia stems to reduce their hunger and thirst during long hunts.

It was also used to treat high blood pressure, diabetes, and as a cure for abdominal cramps, hemorrhoids, tuberculosis, indigestion, and hypertension.

Europeans first encountered it in 1778 and it’s been called the wonder plant of the 21st century. The conventional scientific community is quick to point out there’s no reliable scientific evidence to support hoodia’s use. But that does little to dampen its popularity. Dried extracts of stems and roots are pulverized into capsules, powders, chewable tablets, and teas.

The succulent grows on gravel or shale plains and Kalahari sands. It can withstand temperatures exceeding 40°C and as low as -4°C. A single plant can have as many as 50 branches growing from its base and weigh as much as 30 kg. Flowers are large, have an unappealing carrion-like smell, and are pollinated by flies.

Mass production of the Hoodia plant has brought with it controversy, both in its medicinal claims, and in the initial exclusion of the San from the development and commercialization of products. Negotiations have since assured that the San receive a percentage of the royalties.

It’s no wonder its harvest is now protected by conservation laws. Habitat loss, invasive aliens, illegal harvesting, and climatic conditions threaten Hoodia’s survival.

stamp devils claw - anja denker 2005 smallAnother medicinal wonder used by Indigenous people, mainly the San, for centuries, and only recently ‘discovered’ by Europeans is Devil’s Claw. This pharmaceutical treasure is a gem specific to the Kalahari desert. Primarily used to relieve the pain and inflammation of arthritis, it’s also used as an all-purpose tonic to address ailments such as chest pains, emaciation, weakness, fatigue, urinary problems, digestive disorders, and fever.

Traditionally, the powdered material is mixed with boiling water and taken as an infusion. It’s now also available in capsules, tablets, tinctures, and ointments.

Most Devil’s Claw is wild-harvested by rural subsistence farmers and has become a much-needed source of supplementary cash income for the very poor who harvest and trade it. It also makes a significant contribution to the Namibian national economy.

Presently, there are three primary market segments for Devil’s Claw as: an extract in herbal medicines, a raw material for veterinary herbal remedies or animal food supplements, and an herbal tea with therapeutic qualities.