Even as the world is bracing for vaccination drives to combat COVID-19, many people in the Southern African country of Zimbabwe have latched their hopes on zumbani – a woody shrub – to keep the pandemic at bay.
Nyson Mhaka, 52, and his wife Gertrude, 47, were infected with COVID-19 in December. They claim to have recovered after taking the "wonder herb."
And since then, the couple has turned a campaigner, giving lectures on the lifesaving properties of the fever tea tree leaves.
While there are no clinical studies to suggest that having zumbani can cure a COVID-19 patient, experts believe that its respiratory healing properties may have provided limited help in certain cases.
Scientifically known as Lippia javanica, zumbani is a woody erect shrub that grows naturally in Zimbabwe and other African countries.
"Zumbani helped us recover, I thank God," Mhaka told Anadolu Agency (AA). "Our children panicked, phoning every relative that we were dying at home, but nobody could come in fear of contracting the disease."
In the meantime, their daughter was told by the neighbors to try zumbani.
"It was my daughter, who, touched by our illness, rushed to the neighbors... if it was not for this swift introduction of zumbani, we would have died," said Gertrude.
Martha, the couple's 24-year-old daughter, said her parents were on the death bed and almost sinking till she decided to give them juice extracted from the shrub by boiling its leaves.
Constance Makoni, 33, a former journalist at the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, had a similar experience. She said that a blend of zumbani and several other herbs helped her parents recover from coronavirus last year.
She told AA that taking a cup of zumbani tea once or twice a day has now become a routine for her family members. "It is something that we use and believe it helps," she said.
While there are many others who believe in the 'magical' healing powers of zumbani, herbal medicine experts say its anti-COVID-19 properties stand unproven.
"It is not a coronavirus cure. It is just a relief agent, especially when one is using it in the process of steaming; you inhale it just for relief. The virus in the body can't be cured," said Sarudzai Javaza, a herbalist.
She said that zumbani leaves are used for making tea, and treating flu for long.
"Zumbani is not a cure for COVID-19. What we need is to kill the virus," said Jaravaza.
Yet many known herbal traders in Harare are selling zumbani in the name of curing the novel disease.
"Zumbani is quite effective in preventing coronavirus. In terms of treating the disease, I have not really gotten the science behind it," said Daylight Chidzanja, a herbal trader in the capital. "But zumbani contains phenolic compounds, antibacterial, antiviral properties that prevent the growth or attack by bacteria and viruses, respectively."
She said that because of these properties, people are using the herb against COVID-19.
Earlier, Zimbabwe's Health Minister Constantino Chiwenga said there was a need to undertake a scientific study to ascertain the efficacy of traditional medicine and herbs to combat the pandemic.
With zumbani gaining fame across Zimbabwe, doctors have started saying that the shrub should be given a chance, subject to relevant approvals.
"I think zumbani should be given a chance; there are many, many other medicines that can be tried... let us work on them and not rely on western medicine only," Henry Madzorera, a medical practitioner, told AA.
"If anybody thinks zumbani can help them right now, I can say it because we have used it for a long time. I have taken Zumbani as tea even before I knew it had medicinal properties."
But, he added, big pharmaceutical companies are not interested in African herbal medicine.
"They will lose profits, they will lose business," he said, urging the government to undertake scientific research on the medical utility of herbs found in the continent.
Bob Dzere, a herbalist based in Marondera, a town in Mashonaland East Province, also argued that zumbani should be considered as a possible medicine against coronavirus.
"There is power in every herb, and Zumbani is one of those herbs created by God. We may not know everything. As we grew up, zumbani was used to treat colds, coughs, fevers, and malaria," the 68-year-old told AA.
Billet Magara, another Zimbabwean herbalist who was hit by COVID-19, said that he also used zumbani to recover.
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