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Africa's herbal answer to Viagra

Sao Tome and Principe's traditional healers have vital knowledge of natural drugs.

The research is a partnership of Egas Moniz, the University of Coimbra and the Ministry of Health of Sao Tome, funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon.

Published in 2008, the “Ethno-pharmacological Study of Medicinal Plants of Sao Tome and Principe” is nearly sold out. All profits go to the three stlijons credited as co-authors — among them, Sum Costa. (Sum is the respectful title given to male healers, Sam for a female.)

Ten of Sum Costa’s bark-based medicines feature in the study. Thanks to the book royalties he has been able to renovate his home and he has a $30 monthly stipend.

Together with the government, healers would earn royalties of any drug developed on the basis of their knowledge.

Co-author Sum Lourenco de Sousa Pontes Junior treats malarial patients with tithonia diversifalia, known in Latin America for its anti-diabetes and anti-inflammation properties. This was the first time anti-malarial use had been documented, and lab tests proved Sum Pontes right. “This study marries traditional medicine and science and showcases our plant wealth,” said Dr. Artur Borje, Principe’s chief health officer.

Indeed, the islands are a treasure trove of biological diversity spanning more than 700 botanical species. Of these, 95 are endemic to Sao Tome and 37 to Principe, concentrated in the primary rainforest known as obo.

Other plants were brought from Latin America, Europe, Asia and mainland Africa by the Portuguese, who landed here in 1498 and turned the uninhabited islands into a center for growing sugarcane, coffee and cacao and for the slave trade.

The islands were also a hub for people. Until independence in 1975, the Portuguese brought workers — slaves, forced, indentured and later contracted — from mainland Africa for the plantations.

Sao Tome, the bigger island at 322 square miles, has little obo (primary rainforest) left but plenty of secondary forest.

Principe, at 49 square miles and a population of 1,500, is pure obo, volcanic peaks and sandy beaches. Its capital, Santo Antonio, is a sleepy, quaint place, with pastel-colored houses, steepled churches, friendly people and few tourists.

On a recent Saturday, Borje was chatting on the streets of San Antonio with its famous masseur, Jose Batista da Silva, known as Sum Jeje. Borje sends many patients to Jeje and vows they get better.

Sum Jeje studied for 14 years with older stlijons and passed several exams before practicing.