Jedidah Nankaya et al, in their paper on Medicinal plants of the Maasai of Kenya, reported that pastoralist Maasai communities in Kenya and Tanzania have used traditional medicine likely dating back centuries, with physical documentation of this traditional knowledge only beginning in the 1900’s. The Maasai way of life, being that of living in congress with the land on which their homes derive, means that the Maasai have, over the centuries, gained great knowledge through their pastoralist lifestyle. Their dependency on the land, animals, plants and weather patterns of a given region have created a generational knowledge bank from which the Maasai store and pull from to treat and heal various medical issues— like Malaria, stomach-upset, fever, and more.

The various species of acacia trees that are of common association with the vast plains of East Africa are used by the Maasai to treat a number of ailments. Acacia Nilotica, sometimes called the Gum Arabic Tree, or the Egyptian Thorn tree, is sometimes used to aid stomach upset, diarrhea, and help to increase appetite, but way of distillation via boiling. The bark of the Acacia Mellifera, referred to sometimes as Blackthorn, is used to reduce nausea and aid indigestion, also via a distillation, and the Yellow-Barked Acacia, sometimes called the Fever tree— which I’ll explain the name derivation of below— also helps stomach upset, when boiled, cooled, and consumed.

Acacia Trees dotting a greenery-filled landscape

While the aforementioned ‘fever tree’ is used medicinally, it was once thought to be the cause of yellow fever, hence its popularly-used name. The story goes that when people would fall asleep beneath or near the yellow-barked tree, they would wake up with a fever; this caused blame to be set on objects and plants with proximity to those who’d fallen ill. While this deduction of reason tracks, the reality is that yellow-backed acacias typically grow near water, and the water for which they were close would be the real cause for blame. Mosquitos who carried the yellow-fever virus would be attracted to the waters near yellow-barked acacias, causing cases of yellow-fever to spring up in those with proximity to the tree. Despite the now wide-spread knowledge that the trees are not to blame, the name ‘fever tree’ has managed to hold on.

Many different parts of various trees and plants are used to aid in the every day ailments of the Maasai. From bark, to leaves— charred or boiled— knowledge of the medicinal properties of native East African plants has been passed down for centuries. While Nankaya’s study notes a reduction in the inherited knowledge of Maasai traditional medicine in present day communities, they also note that these traditional treatments have been crucial in aiding the Maasai in the absence of nearby official health facilities, meaning that the need for this continued knowledge-sharing is incredibly important.

Acacia Trees along a dirt path