The Sahrawi of Morocco: When Medicine is What is Within Your Hands

The Sahrawi  of Morocco: When Medicine is What is Within Your Hands

By Hwaa Irfan

There is nothing unusual about this, accept that in a nation that has removed that power, that self knowledge so that one becomes unaware of one’s own body, one’s own health needs, and one’s true physiological ecology, one becomes reliant on those who have disempowered you. Many of us will not see it like that until one realizes that the very conditions that one lives under is the reason for one’s state of dis-ease, physically, mentally, and spiritually. That may be the direct consequence of imposed lifestyle choices, or it may be the result of one’s reaction to what has become pervasive.

For the Sahrawi/Sahrauoi people, the years of self determination have been replaced by a struggle with the state, a struggle that many are now finding themselves engulfed in as the very props  that have determined our lives fall away. For the Sahrawi/Sahrauoi, the struggle for independence up until a 1991 cease-fire with Morocco resulted in many fleeing to Algeria, to live in Polisaro Front-run refugee camps, Polisario Front being the rebel group that fought for the independence of their people.

Irish-born photographer Andrew McConnell captured many of the Sahrawi/Sahrauoi on film, like Djimi Elghalia Vice president of the Saharawi Association of Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations Committed by the Moroccan State (ASVDH), now aged 48:

Djimi Elghalia

“My family was among many who fled the climate and social conditions in Western Sahara to look for work in Morocco. A lot of Sahrawi/Sahrauoi used to stay at our home, and because of this, my grandmother was arrested in 1984. She was 60. We never saw her again. In 1986, I moved to El Aaiún for work. The next year, I was arrested along with 500 others for trying to organize a demonstration on independence. They interrogated me and used physical and psychological torture. They would put chemicals in my hair, which made me faint. I was electrocuted on the arms and back and was bitten by dogs. I was released in 1991 along with 324 people, some of whom had been held since the invasion.”

Dada Mohammed Kehel:

“I was born in Smara, [a refugee camp] in the occupied territory [of Western Sahara] in 1955. I remember the valleys and little houses. I felt free there; even the wind smelt of freedom. I used to go to school with Spanish children. The Spanish had everything: cars, diggers. They made roads. When they left, they buried the Sahrawi/Sahrauoi. We felt stabbed in the back. When Morocco invaded, I ran with my family. It was a surprise, because nobody had radios. Some fled on foot and others on camels, but many were caught. I spent a lot of time in the camps. I hated it there, I felt like a tourist of Algeria. So after the cease-fire, I moved to the liberated territory. We are free here and I love it, but there are difficulties.”

The Western Sahara desert or the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) may receive upto 4.5 cm of rain annually. If one knows how extreme the temperatures in the desert can get, then from 60˚C (150 ° F) to freezing at night does not sound unusual. SADR borders the North Atlantic Ocean between Mauritania and Morocco.

Not estranged from their environment like city dwellers, the Sahrawi/Sahrauoi depends on pastoral nomadism, fishing, and phosphate mining as the principal sources of income for the population. However, all trade and other economic activities are controlled by the Moroccan Government. Added to this insult, one that is familiar to a indigenous peoples, the Moroccan Government signed contracts in 2001 for oil to exploration off the coast of Western Sahara.

The Sahrawi/Sahrauoi are semi-nomadic and Berber. Their Arab inheritance can be traced back to the 15th Century when tribes migrated from Yemen across North Africa and settled in Western Sahara.

In SADR, there are four refugee camps on a desert plateau called Hamada, near the Algerian city of Tindouf. A population of 165,000 Sahrawi/Sahrauoi with 20 years of practice live in what has become well organized refugee camps of canvas tents and mud brick huts.

Democracy is innately a part of their culture in that no single tribe has power over others, and all are represented in an overall governing body. Peaceful solutions are friendly way or by compensation through Islamic law. However, intrinsic to Arabism is racism, so the darker skinned members are not treated the same.

Over the years, they have improved their quality of life by developing an informal economy that includes marketing of many products through trade routes with Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, Algeria, and Spain. Some of  those products are traditional ethnobiological, which have helped to maintain their medicinal traditions.

Acacia ehrenbergiana of the plant family Fabaceae are used to treat eye infections and conjunctivitis. The leaves are dried, powdered and tAcacia ehrenbergiana riturated for wounds, and the resin known as el elk tamat is used for eye problems.

Anastatica hierochuntica of the Brassicaceae plant family is used in the treatment of vitiligo/white spots on the skin, mycotic skin infections, particularly the hands and nails. The aerial parts are dried, triturated, and boiled in water, and it is used as a topical application. When cooled and dried, the plant material is triturated and mixed with water to form a plaster for the treatment.

Argania spinosa of the Sapotaceae plant family is used to strengthen the hair and against aging.  The bulez oil is extracted from the seeds and applied as a cream.

Balanites aegyptiaca  of the Balanitaceae plant family is used as a mouth wash for the treatment of mouth and skin infections -mycosis, and spots. The fruit is roasted and peeled for its oil which is applied to the skin. The ashes from the burnt fruit are mixed with the oil and applied topically as a mouth wash, with the infusion of the peel and leaves.

Beta patellaris of the Chenopodiaceae plant family is used to treat otitis/ear infection in children by extracting the oil from the seeds.

Caylusea hexagyna of the Resedaceae plant family is used to perfume the hair, to treat lice, and as a dressing which stays on the hair for 24 hours to treat hair loss and to stimulate hair growth.  Fresh aerial parts are pounded, to extract the juice, which is then mixed with oil/fat.

Commiphora africana of the Burseraceae plant family is used to clean the teeth, as an antiseptic for wounds and skin infections, and as a smudge for protection against the evil eye.  The stems and resin are used triturated.

Mesembryanthemum cryptanthum of the Aizoaceae plant family is used as soap.  The  green aerial parts are pounded and then mixed with water.

Pergularia tomentosa of the Asclepiadaceae plant family is used in the treatment of  snakebites, scorpion stings, and boils. The leaves are dried, triturated and mixed with water and applied topically. The resin is used to get rid of warts.

Red hematite/ochre  is applied topically to reduce solar radiation into eyes, for cataract, conjunctivitis, abscesses, bone fractures and wounds.

These are but a few of the natural remedies the Sahrawi/Sahrauoi use.  What do you have in your kitchen cupboard that is not irradiated, processed or modified genetically that has a medicinal function?


Macdonald, K. “A Light on the People of Western Sahara.”

Volpato, G., Kourková, P., Zelený, V., “Healing war wounds and perfuming exile: the use of vegetal, animal, and mineral products for perfumes, cosmetics, and skin healing among Sahrawi refugees of Western Sahara.” Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 2012, 8:49 doi:10.1186/1746-4269-8-49

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