Staff Spotlight: Grace Gobbo

For centuries, medicinal plants used by traditional healers have been at the heart of health care in Tanzania. Today, this is largely because most of the population cannot afford the high price of imported drugs. Sadly, indigenous medical knowledge and the forests where many medicinal plants are found are disappearing at an alarming rate.

Grace Gobbo, a Tanzanian ethnobotanist, is part of the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) team working on the Gombe-Masito-Ugalla Ecosystem Program. Her efforts focus on reinvigorating the herbal medicine traditions in East Africa in order to reverse these trends.

Grace studies holistic, natural approaches to cure and relief that she believes are 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," says Grace. "When a person harvested a plant for medicine, s/he would talk to the spirit of the plant. There was a communication between people and nature."

Grace has interviewed more than 80 traditional healers in the town of Kigoma in western Tanzania. The healers have shared information on using plants to treat ailments such as skin and chest infections, stomach ulcers, diabetes, heart disease, mental illness, and even cancer. Grace has recorded this information, with notes and photographs of the plants and their uses, into a computer database.

To date, Grace has recorded 280 varieties of medicinal plants and trained 720 local people on the value of these plants.

"Previously, these facts existed only as an oral tradition," explains Grace. "Nothing was written down. The knowledge is literally dying out with the elders because today's younger generation considers natural remedies old-fashioned." Grace wants to capture and preserve the irreplaceable facts about these plants before they are lost, and to 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 where they can explore their heritage and learn from their elders."

In 2009, Grace was named one of the year’s National Geographic Emerging Explorers, an award that supports “uniquely gifted and inspiring” young scientists, adventurers and others who are “making a significant contribution to world knowledge through exploration.”

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