Change threatens Masai culture, plants, medicine

Kathleen Ryan's mission is to preserve the ecosystem in which the Masai in southern Kenya live and at the same time preserve a piece of their culture.

Ryan (right) watches as the Masai treat a goat (shown with her new twins and an older kid) with both a modern antibiotic and with an herbal brew to expel the placenta. The man to Ryan's left, her chief informant on herbal remedies, has taken her into his family.

Ryan, a research scientist at MASCA (Museum Applied Science Center for Archeology) at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, has spent so much time in Masailand since 1990 that she has been officially adopted as the sister of the senior wife of the man shown in the front of the photo.

Her plan is to preserve the Masai's knowledge of local plants and their curative powers, and to preserve the Masai husbandry techniques that preserve the ecosystem in which the plants survive.

In the push to preserve biodiversity for pharmacological uses, Western researchers have focused on resources in the tropical rain forests, but more arid zones also offer endangered plants, Ryan said.

The curative powers the Masai rely on are no bush voodoo. Ryan researched the plants on Napralert, a University of Chicago database of enthnographic uses and multinational pharmacological testing of botanical species, and found the Masai antibacterials did test active on resistant strains of bacteria, and the antifungals tested active against fungi.

Ryan said the Masai laughed at her when she brought them the news.

The Masai use some of the same plants for both human and animal medicine, although not necessarily the same parts of the plants. The medicines are used in humans for a wide range of illnesses, including STDs, parasitic diseases, prostate problems and arthritis. A high proportion of medicines are for women, helping pregnancy, birth contractions, abortion, and for use after the birth.

The plants treat animals for major diseases like east coast fever and anthrax. But the Masai use Western medicines as well. "They have not given up on the old, but have accepted the new," Ryan said.

The site Ryan has been working is close to Tanzania, in sight of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Raiders from across the border have caused her to move her camp farther from the village she is studying, and closer to a nearby boarding school. Her research team, all Kenyans, were relieved when she finally made the move.Until now, the Masai's traditional livestock management has preserved a diversity of plants in a fragile ecosystem by using a variety of livestock - cattle, goats and sheep - and using extensive ranging and rotational grazing. Their local ecosystem has remained productive long after the plants have disappeared from more developed landscapes. But she's worried that the Masai knowledge will be lost. The Masai girls at the local school were embarrassed about sharing their knowledge of plants with the girls from other cultures at the school. "They want to be like everyone else," Ryan said. "They were ashamed of their own culture."

So she is hoping to set up a plant education display at the school.

"You can't save the world. You can't even save the whole area; but you can save something."

Originally published on May 14, 1998