“Witchdoctors” in lab coats: Reclaiming Samoa’s traditional knowledge
By Elizabeth Ah-Hi
Three years ago, a provocative story line captivated international audiences when Samoan rugby star, Manu Tuilagi sought the services of a Samoan “witch doctor” to help him recover from a knee injury.
Curious readers gobbled up the bizarre headlines wanting to find out why the England rugby sensation, who has access to state of the art medical facilities and services in the world, would resort to such a “backward practice” and travel half way across the world to the remote Pacific.
The remarkable story raised as many eyebrows as it did questions but more importantly gave mainstream audiences a glimpse into what Samoans (who have been beneficiaries of traditional medicine) have always known - that centuries old knowledge and practices by the Taulasea (traditional Samoan healers) passed on from generation to generation, still play a vital role in Samoan society.
What might be even more outrageous than a story about a rugby player claiming to be healed by a Samoan “witch doctor”, is the amount of scientific research that has been conducted by bio prospectors from developed countries on Samoan plants.
A study in 2003 revealed that up to 40 researchers came to Samoa each year to study useful properties of plants and animals as well as access to related traditional knowledge.
This interest demonstrates Samoa’s traditional knowledge could be a worthwhile commodity which, if properly protected and promoted, may be a significant source of revenue for the economy of Samoa.
Masuisuiolemalietoa Dr Seeseei Molimau – Samasoni who leads the Plant and Post harvest technology division at the Scientific Research organisation of Samoa (SROS) says, it’s been almost 10 years since the government took serious measures to protect Samoa’s genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge.
“In 2012, the government tasked SROS to look into our medicinal plants” said Dr Seeseei “ In 2013, 11 plants were collected and sent to New Zealand for study at the accredited laboratories. Fast forward 5 years and we tried to build the capacity to do that work here. Last year we completed our plant technology laboratories dedicated to medicinal plants work.”
Together with local Taulasea, SROS is currently testing and researching over 100 medicinal plants with bio activity, targeting the three biggest health threats Samoans face today; anti-microbial resistance, cancer, diabetes (and other non-communicable diseases)
“My lab focusses on anti-microbe activity and after assessing more than a hundred extracts, we found some with very promising bioactivities.” said Dr Seeseei “We screen against Methicillin- resistant Staphylococcus (MRSA) because it’s a problematic bacteria that’s resistant to drugs that our hospitals provide – it’s a big problem here in Samoa. We screen against that to make sure our results are relevant to the Samoan scenario with very promising results - so there are extracts that inhibit the growth of these resistant bacteria.”
Medicinal plants are now a research passion for Dr Seeseei - even though she admits that earlier during her scientific study, she was sceptical of any significant bio-activity discoveries related to the traditional plants of Samoa.
“I grew up being exposed to traditional medicine – my mum knew which plants to reach for when we needed them as kids but I never really gave it much thought as an undergraduate working in a drug discovery laboratory” said Dr Seeseei.
She admits that when she became aware of bio technology researchers from overseas exploiting Samoan traditional plants and knowledge, she began to look at drug discovery from a different perspective.
During her study, one of the eleven Samoan plants that was screened and found to have the most bio activity was the Matalafi (psychotria insularum) which coincidently was used by Taulasea to treat supernatural induced ailments thought to be caused by spirits.
“In the first year of my PHD, I discovered bio activity in our plants and researched the traditional medicine of other countries like India and China that have been around for centuries and stood the test of time. I had to eat my words, my mind-set changed and now it’s my research passion”
The World Health Organization has estimated that the global market for traditional therapies is in excess of USD$70 billion a year and world-wide sales of pharmaceutical drugs based on traditional medicines are estimated to be worth USD$32 billion each year.
While there is potentially significant commercial value for research institutes and pharmaceutical companies in Samoa’s traditional knowledge of using plant varieties for healing purposes, the potential for Samoa to address some health gaps is far more valuable from a local perspective, particularly post COVID-19.
“This is medicine that our people have used for hundreds of years and during that time through trial and error they figured out what works and what doesn’t work” said Dr Seeseei. “There are countries who enjoy a good marriage between traditional and conventional medicine and it’s my hope that we will be able to provide the scientific foundation for the doctors to be able to do that here.”
“I think it will be beneficial for our people, especially those who find it difficult to afford western medicine and who suffer from long term illnesses, because having access to both the traditional knowledge and the plants in our own backyard to help combat those illnesses is only going to improve the health and wellbeing of our people and future.”
* this content has been developed with support funding from the Australian Centre for International Agriculture Research (ACIAR)