Learning from African Traditional Medicine: Fort Hare researcher leads the way

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Dr Bongani Alphouse Nkala of the Integrative Medical Research Unit (IMRU) in the Faculty of Health Sciences is passionate about indigenous knowledge systems and their role in treating disease. One of Dr Nkala’s many successes has involved the establishment of an African Traditional Medicine (ATM) Research Unit within the IMRU, accompanied by the development of a research programme that will provide the acknowledgment denied to the indigenous knowledge used by healers for centuries.
Medicinal plants have long been used in the development of drug therapies, and recent research in this area has focused on new treatment and management of diseases such as malaria, cancer and diabetes. African traditional medicine draws on medicinal plants, and healers have a wealth of knowledge and understanding about their use. 
The purpose of the ATM Research Unit is to promote IKS by contributing to the body of knowledge concerning the safety and efficacy of African traditional medicine. The focus of the Unit will be to draw on indigenous knowledge systems in the treatment of the top five diseases encountered in the Eastern
Cape. Importantly, researchers will seek to go beyond simply treating indigenous knowers as knowledge holders to be used as sources of information. 
The aim is to involve them in the studies themselves, a goal which gives meaning to claims that indigenous knowledge should be valued and brought into the university. Another aim is to ensure that indigenous knowers are able to benefit from any financial gains that result from the application of their
Also important is the fact that the research programme designed by Dr Nkala will involve Master’s and doctoral students from a range of disciplines, including Biochemistry, Biotechnology, Environmental Studies, Clinical Medicine and Pharmacology. 
Students will produce studies that will contribute to developing the knowledge
necessary to fulfil the goals of the ATM Unit. The first step in the research programme will involve documenting existing knowledge by gathering anecdotal evidence and using this to construct systematic bodies of knowledge. 
In this phase of the research, studies will focus on traditional medicine common to a locality in order to compile a database. It will also involve collecting, classifying and allocating specimen numbers to samples of leaves, bark and herbs which will be stored in the University’s herbarium.
Studies will then move on to determining and characterising the efficacy of traditional medicine by drawing on modern techniques including antibiotic testing and clinical testing. This stage of the research will involve Master’s
and doctoral students working in Biochemistry, Biotechnology and Environmental Science.
The next stage of the project will involve the discovery and repurposing of the traditional medicines identified, through documenting, characterising and
determining their efficacy. Finally, new or useful established drugs identified in previous studies can be drawn upon for commercial use. 
The exciting and innovative programme set out by Dr Nkala aims to attract local and international collaborators who want to contribute to the quality of life of those living in the Eastern Cape and beyond, once again showing the ability and commitment of UFH researchers to work at a global level with the local firmly in focus.