JGI ethnobotanist Grace Gobbo named National Geographic “Emerging Explorer”

For centuries, medicinal plants used by traditional healers have been at the heart of health care in Tanzania, where most of the population can’t afford the high price of imported drugs. But today, both the rainforest where many of the plants are found and indigenous medical knowledge are disappearing.

Grace Gobbo, a Tanzanian ethnobotanist with JGI’s USAID-funded Greater Gombe Ecosystem Program, hopes her efforts to reinvigorate herbal medicine traditions in East Africa will help reverse these trends.

Ms. Gobbo studies holistic, natural approaches to cure and relief that she believes essential to the connection between individuals and their environment. She also educates Tanzanians about the value of these practices, particularly as they relate to sustainable agriculture. "People used to live in harmony with the environment," she says. "When a person harvested a plant for medicine, he would talk to the spirit of the plant. There was a communication between people and nature."

Last week Ms. Gobbo was named to the 2009 class of National Geographic Emerging Explorers, an award that supports “uniquely gifted and inspiring” young scientists, adventurers and others “making a significant contribution to world knowledge through exploration.”

“They represent tomorrow’s Edmund Hillarys, Jacques Cousteaus and Dian Fosseys,” said Terry Garcia, National Geographic’s executive vice president for mission programs.

Emerging Explorers receive $10,000 for future research, and are featured in the February 2009 issue of National Geographic magazine and on the Society’s website.

Gobbo has interviewed more than 80 traditional healers near her hometown of Kigoma, who have shared information on using plants to treat such ailments as skin and chest infections, stomach ulcers, diabetes, heart disease, mental illness and even cancer.

She has recorded the information, with notes and photographs of the plants and their uses, into a computer database.

"Before now, these facts existed only as an oral tradition," she explains. "Nothing was written down. The knowledge is literally dying out with the elders, since today's young generation considers natural remedies old-fashioned." Gobbo wants to capture and preserve the irreplaceable facts before they are lost, and convince young people to appreciate their value.

She also hopes to create a cultural center for youth to learn and preserve indigenous knowledge and crafts. “I remember listening to stories my grandfather told us around the fire at night," she notes. "I loved those moments. I want to give young people a place to explore their heritage and learn from their elders."

Read National Geographic’s profile of Grace Gobbo.



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