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Thanks to a collaborative venture between South Africa and Norway, Heritage month 2013  marks the return to South Africa of the first-known written manuscript about the use of African plant medicines, dating back more than a century.

Book coverInspired and guided by the indigenous communities of Eshowe (Kwazulu-Natal), Norwegian-born medical doctor Henrick Blessing historically recorded their knowledge of plant medicines between 1901 and 1904, whilst he worked with the missionaries in the region.  The original manuscript was discovered during a collaborative project which began in 2004 when highly rated academic, Prof Quinton Johnson, now the Principal of the NMMU (George Campus), joined forces with a number of Norwegian counterparts from the University of Oslo in a collaborative study on the quality, safety and efficacy of African plant medicines.

The historic records of Dr Blessing were combined with the current scientific knowledge of 98 medicinal plants described by him, which the authors researched.  This culminated in the publishing of a book which is of major significance in terms of its scientific, medical, economic, cultural, historic and heritage value. South African Traditional Medicinal Plants from KwaZulu-Natal, was jointly authored by Prof Johnson (NMMU), Proff Berit Smestad-Paulsen and Kaare Norum (both from the University of Oslo) and Norwegian Medicine Regulator, Hege Ekeli. The book was published by Akademika and launched in Norway (June) as well as the South African Parliament (November) during 2012.

Prof Johnson and Prof Kaare Norum (Rector Emeritus, University Oslo), facilitated the return  to South Africa of the original manuscript on which the book was based. They were strongly supported by the Norwegian Painter John David Nielsen who, as a relative, inherited the records from Dr Blessing.

The historic document was handed over to the South African Ambassador, Her Excellency Queen Anne Zondo, by Director-General Bente-Angel Hansen of the Norwegian Foreign Ministry (Oslo) on 29 August, and will now be placed in our national archive. After more than a century, we can celebrate our heritage through the distinct knowledge of our people about African plant medicines described in an ancient manuscript, which has finally come home.

Exchange of historic manuscript

Prof. Quinton Johnson (NMMU) (from left), Ambassador Kari  Bjørnsgaard (Norway), Painter John David Nielsen (Norway),  Ambassador Queen-Ann Zondo (South Africa) and Director-General Bente Angell-Hansel (Foreign Affairs-Norway).

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