The following piece describes the first day of my internship, with the Agriculture Farm of Tobe, made possible in part by a grant from the ll‘s Individually Developed Overseas Internship Program. The Tobe association is a small, grassroots conservation and development association that works with the Itcha and Ife people who live in and around the Agoua National Forest in Benin, West Africa. I collaborated with the association when I was a Peace Corps volunteer (‘95-‘97) and returned in 1999 for a six-month internship.

    The Tobe association began about 15 years ago when it introduced modern beekeeping techniques to villagers that allowed for the improvement of hives and marketing techniques. Villagers now sell their honey to the association, which markets it in the capital city. Through this program, villagers have a monetary incentive to conserve sections of the forest. The association has also worked with traditional land and religious leaders to create village teams of hunters who patrol village-sanctioned non-hunting zones within the national forest. In several villages the association has created nursery schools that integrate environmental education into the curriculum. The Tobe association also promotes family planning and improved sanitation and health in the villages.

    My internship focused on the association‘s newest initiative, which is to document the traditional remedies of heelers in the villages of Koko and Malomi and to create a garden of healing plants. Through these programs, the association encourages conservation of the forest and at the same time reinforces primary health care provisions in the villages.

    ”Keke o kpa Oluwo. Oluwo chubule. Ka lo!” [A bicycle hit Oluwo. Oluwo fell. Let‘s go!].

    Cakpo, grandson of the 85-year-old Oluwo, raced on his beat-up red motorcycle from the village of Koko and managed to find us. I was in the “Tobe forest” with Awubade, a traditional healer from Koko, and his son, Joel. He was looking very concerned as he gave us the news. Awubade said, “Bring ateome, ameje, oruku, ogbo and akila plants. Lots. We will meet up in Koko.” Awubade got on the back of Cakpo‘s motorcycle and they raced back to the village of Koko to attend to Oluwo. We were all very concerned. Oluwo was not only the chief babalao (fortune-teller) and the guardian of the sacred hill in the “Tobe forest,” but he was also my internship host.

    Earlier that morning, Awubade, Joel, and I had ridden our bicycles five kilometers from the village of Koko out to the Tobe forest zone so that we could begin our study of healing plants. Awubade decided that we should start with his specialty, treating fractures and sprains. The plants that we needed could only be found in the protected zone. Awubade carried a machete, Joel a plastic bag for collecting plants, and I my camera and notebook. As we walked through the forest Awubade showed us many plants: ateome (the monkey‘s hand plant), ameje (it removes blood), oruku ogbo (it smells like a goat), and akila (there are stripes on the stem). In my notebook I carefully wrote down the local name, its meaning, its habitat, and the part of the pant that is used in the remedy. In addition, we took photos of Awubade with the plant in situ and collected samples to take better photos of the plants back in the village. Joel was his father‘s apprentice and already knew many of the plants and how they are used.

    “It is better to harvest these plants in March,” Awubade said and pointed to one of them. “The small reddish leaves are better but the older green leaves will work as well.”

    He gestured to another plant, “Don‘t rip this up by the roots, there isn‘t much around and we want some for next time.”

    “One last thing,” he said, rubbing another plant between his hands, “this stinks, be sure to wash your hands when we get back!”

    As we walked through the forest in search of certain plants for healing fractures and sprains, he pointed out others that he used to treat malaria, snakebite, diarrhea, rashes, etc.

    While Awubade and Cakpo hurried back to Koko, Joel and I collected the plants for the patient as we had been instructed. We rode without speaking under the hot noontime sun. I begun to realize that I was quite overwhelmed by the morning and was nervous with anticipation about our arrival in Koko. I had only just begun my apprenticeship and already we were going to treat a patient who was my host and one of the most important people in the village.

    When we arrived in Oluwo‘s courtyard women were crying. After listening to several versions the story became clearer. Early that morning Oluwo had consulted the Fa, the oracle, and it had forbade him to “go to the fields.” But he had gone. As he walked to his fields a young boy on a bicycle had knocked him over, injuring his legs. Oluwo had to be carried back to the village.

    When we saw him he was obviously in great pain but he was primarily worried about the Fa. He insisted that he did not “go to the fields” (implying to work) but instead that he went to “check on the fields” (implying a simple visit). This was an extremely important distinction since it would be a grave mistake for any villager and especially a babalao to have defied what the oracle had commanded.

    Awubade was already hard at work in the courtyard giving instructions to people. He explained to us that Oluwo had broken his leg and that we were going to “fix it.” Several women were peeling atale and others were pounding already peeled bits in a large wooden mortar made from the trunk of a tree. Since it was my first day I thought that in such an emergency I would let the experts take over but Awubade saw me observing from the shade on the side of the courtyard. “Let‘s see what you learned this morning,” he said to me, “Let‘s go!”

    To the pounded atale we added the fresh leaves that we had brought from the forest and some palm gin. Then a young girl took over the pounding while Joel and I were sent off behind Oluwo‘s house to find another plant, kitikpokpo (small tree that gets big). Awubade had explained earlier that morning that there was no kitikpokpo in the forest. He said, “ People plant it in the village. We only use it for emergencies and this is a real emergency.” Joel and I asked some women who were putting wash on the line if we could have some branches from their kitikpokpo tree. They had planted it behind their shower stall where it would benefit from the constant watering. They agreed and we cut several branches.

    When the pounded mixture was completed Awubade ordered everyone out of Oluwo‘s house except for his two wives. Then he saw me once again trying to stay out of the way in the shade on the side of the courtyard and motioned for me to come in. Oluwo looked surprised when he saw me but Awubade said, “I think you know my new apprentice. You‘ve provided her with hands-on training, first day on the job!”

    “African alcohol,” Awubade declared as he cleaned Oluwo‘s leg with palm gin. Then they both had a drink from the shot glass, “Good for the inside and out!” We bandaged Oluwo‘s leg with the plant mixture and then headed back to Awubade‘s house.

    As we sat on the goatskins on the floor of his mud house and ate boiled yams and spicy oil with out hands, I began to reflect on our day. I was tired but had learned a lot. I was more excited than ever to work with the Tobe association on documenting traditional plant remedies. It was going to be an enormous task. Awubade‘s knowledge was extensive. I could only hope to learn and record a small fraction of what he knew.

    I was especially pleased that Joel was working with us. He represents the next generation of healers and he was very interested in recording the knowledge in what would become a reference book. It had become obvious to me on that first day that the Tobe forest was being conserved in part because local people can find certain plants in the forest that are useful to them. Treating Oluwo that morning also showed that villagers rely on healers for their primary health care needs and that those healers rely on plants from the forest and others that they grow in the village.


    Jennifer Talbot is completing a master‘s degree in the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the U-M. After graduation she plans to work on natural resources management and health care issues in Africa.