By Piers Gibbon
This was the first time I have ever been to Cameroon, and it was an extraordinary couple of weeks all round. For the first few days me, Jenna and Dwight (our patients from the USA) stayed in an apartment in Yaoundé. My best memory from the apartment is crawling around the floor howling with laughter after inhaling the smoke from some unknown plant material that was supposed to help Dwight's sleep problems. It certainly helped us bond as a team, and Dwight did actually sleep soundly that night.
Yaoundé is a big bustling noisy African city - people have moved here from all over the country. This meant that Dwight and Jenna had access here to all the treatments from all the different ethnic groups who live in Cameroon.
One thing that became rapidly apparent was that this kind of African medicine relies on a lot of animal sacrifice. One idea seems to be that the spirit of the animal takes your request for better health up to the gods. This is difficult to watch if you can't immediately see the medical reason for it. We were covered in goat blood and I also swallowed a chicken heart whole. Luckily I was hungry that day.
One stand out treatment here (for Dwight's back ache) involved snake oil and a so far unidentified herb. Dwight reported that he could actually feel the pain relieving effects penetrating his skin. "Snake Oil" is slang for medicine that doesn't work, so this was a hint that we would find Cameroon eye-opening in more ways than one.
We got arrested by armed policemen one sunny morning because they wanted to know what we were doing hanging around a shallow grave and a pool of blood in downtown Yaoundé. It took us five hours to talk our way out of that. By then we were keen to get out of the city.
The most enjoyable part of the trip was getting out in to the jungle with the Bagyeli people - it is amazing to see the range of plants they use for medicine. I held off from asking exactly which plants and nor did I take voucher specimens back to a herbarium - the gold standard in ethnobotany. Why? Well the Bagyeli said they had given away too much information for too little return in the past. They talked about scientists coming a few years ago and taking all their medical plant knowledge and going back to the west to earn many dollars from it. I don't know the exact truth of that story but I do know that I personally couldn't guarantee that if I spread word of a Bagyeli remedy in the West that the Bagyeli themselves would ever benefit. It was an amazing glimpse into the culture of the Bagyeli - sadly they are being forced out of their rainforest home by logging and industrial development.