Until her recent retirement, Lydia Makhubu was the Vice Chancellor (in American terms, President) of the University of Swaziland, where she was also Professor of Chemistry. She received her higher education in Lesotho and at the Universities of Alberta and Toronto, where she earned a Ph.D. in Medicinal Chemistry. Building on her study of chemistry, Dr. Makhubu has had a distinguished career as a scientist in the area of health and traditional medicine, as a leader in higher education, and as a commentator on science, technology, and development in Africa and other developing regions. Among the many instances of her international service, she has been a consultant to several United Nations agencies and to the American Association for the Advancement of Science and has chaired the Association of Commonwealth Universities. Jane Reece met with her in Paris, where Dr. Makhubu was attending a meeting of the Executive Board of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Please tell us a little about Swaziland and its people.
Swaziland is a small landlocked country, only 17,400 square kilometers in area (smaller than New Jersey). It borders Mozambique on the east and South Africa on the west and south. The country ranges in altitude from high to low, and it has a great diversity of organisms, especially plants. The capital, Mbabane, is in the ecological zone called the highveld, where the altitude is close to 1,800 meters above sea level. The altitude drops to the middleveld, which has rich soils especially good for agriculture. As you go toward Mozambique and the sea, the land gets low and flat—the lowveld. The climate and the plant and animal species change as the altitude changes.
Swaziland is unusual these days because it is a kingdom, with a king who has executive authority. In the population of about 1 million, there is only one ethnic group, the Swazis, so we haven't had the conflicts that have afflicted some other African nations. Swaziland was a British colony, gaining independence in 1968. These days, the economy isn't as good as it used to be, in part because we've had a lot of drought and we're heavily dependent on agriculture.
What influenced you to become a medicinal chemist?
In the early days, my parents were teachers, but then my father took up a career in the Ministry of Health, becoming an orderly in a medical clinic. We lived at the clinic, and I could see him check people—since doctors were scarce, an orderly had a lot of responsibility. I wanted to be a medical doctor at that time. I ended up studying chemistry at college in Lesotho. From there, I went to Canada, where I did a master's degree and doctorate. I liked chemistry because it seemed to make sense: You mix this and that, and a product appears. I became interested in organic chemistry, and then, probably influenced by the importance of medicine in my society, I chose medicinal chemistry. I wanted to study the effects of drugs on the body.
What do you mean by "medicine in my society"?
The traditional medicine of my people. At college in Lesotho, we students used to argue about traditional medicine: Some believed it was absolute nonsense; others thought it worked. I was interested in this question. So when I came back from Canada, I immediately sought out traditional healers, including some of my relatives, and I was shown a few of the medicinal preparations they used. I started working in the laboratory to try to identify what was in those medicines.
In other countries of Southern Africa, traditional healers have organized themselves into associations and have even established some clinics. But in Swaziland, the British banned traditional medicine by the Witchcraft Act of 1901—and this law has not been repealed yet. Even people who had access to modern clinics, though, often continued to go to traditional healers, as well, and this continues today.
Tell us about the research on the plant Phytolacca dodecandra and its potential for preventing disease.
This plant, also called edod or soapberry, is a common bush in Africa. One day in 1964, an Ethiopian scientist, the late Aklilu Lemma of Addis Ababa University, was walking near a small stream, where he saw women washing clothes. He noticed a large pile of dead snails, of the type that transmits the disease schistosomiasis. He asked the women, "What are you using for soap?" and learned that they were using the berries of Phytolacca. He then took berries to the lab, along with some living snails, and found that extracts of the berries killed the snails.
What is schistosomiasis?
Also called bilharzia or snail fever, this is a debilitating disease that afflicts more than 200 million people worldwide. It is one of the greatest scourges in the developing world. The disease is caused by a parasitic flatworm (a fluke) that uses an aquatic snail as a host during part of its life cycle. Fluke larvae released by the snails pierce the skin of people standing or swimming in the water, infecting them. You can control schistosomiasis by killing the parasite with a drug or by killing the snail with a synthetic molluscicide—but both are too expensive in Africa.
Is this where Phytolacca comes in?
Yes, Phytolacca berries are a better control method for schistosomiasis in Africa than synthetic chemicals of any sort because people can easily grow the plant and harvest the berries. Chemists have isolated the Phytolacca chemical that is lethal to snails, although it is not yet known exactly how it acts. Researchers have discovered that the chemical also kills some other parasites that live in African rivers, as well as the larvae of mosquitoes (which transmit malaria). And there are no bad environmental effects because the chemical readily decomposes.
At the University of Swaziland, we obtained seeds of Phytolacca from Ethiopia, grew the plants, and harvested the berries. The Ethiopians came to show us how to do everything; it was a true collaboration between Swazi and Ethiopian scientists, with help from some Zimbabwans and an American. Working in the lab, we discovered the concentration at which the berry extract killed the snails, and then we went into the field for further tests. Now we have selected an area in Swaziland where schistosomiasis is very prevalent, and we're working with the people there, teaching them how to grow and use Phytolacca. We hope that, in another year, the communities will be able to control the disease themselves.
What goes on at your university's institute of traditional medicine?
At this institute, officially the "Swaziland Institute of Research in Traditional Medicine, Medicinal and Indigenous Food Plants," multidisciplinary teams study all aspects of traditional medicine. Traditional healers are essential team members because they know the healing plants and how to use them. We have had several workshops with traditional healers, trying to convince them of the importance of sharing their knowledge with us—because they are going to die, like all of us, and the knowledge may soon be lost. However, the healers—even my relatives!—are reluctant to help. They think, "You with your white coats are going to make loads of money from my knowledge." Their belief system is another obstacle. The healers believe that they are given the power of healing by their ancestors, and they are supposed to pass on this knowledge only to their children. But mostly it is suspicion. You know, for a long time they were called witches, and quite a few of the older ones are still sore about that; they ask me, "When is that Witchcraft Act of yours going to be repealed?"—as if I had written it! But slowly we are managing to convince them. We want to involve them for the long term, not only to show us the plants and help us grow them but to come into the lab to teach us how they prepare the medicine, so that we can quantify everything. But it's not easy.
It is also important, I think, to study the spiritual beliefs of the healers because the whole system is based on those beliefs. They say they are shown the plants in a dream by their ancestors' spirits, and they make diagnoses by throwing bones and going into a trance, during which the spirits speak to them.
What is the state of the environment and biological diversity in Swaziland?
Not very good. I think the underlying problem is overreliance on the natural environment, especially plant resources. In many rural areas, people have chopped down trees for wood until the land is completely bare; they do not know how to replant. Their grazing animals, such as cattle, often eat whatever plants remain. And the healers may overharvest medicinal plants from the wild. Many plants are disappearing.
Preservation of diversity goes along with preservation of the environment. So, you find that, in parts of Swaziland, certain animals have disappeared because the plants they lived on are no longer there. Even the climate is affected. For instance, in the forested highveld of Swaziland, there used to be lots of rain. But as the plants are removed, the rainfall lessens.
Another issue is damage that can result from projects associated with economic development, such as mining and dam construction. It is only recently that companies carrying out these big projects are being required to take care of the environment.
What are the challenges that science education faces in Africa?
We don't have enough resources to build proper science facilities, and we don't have enough science teachers. Another serious problem is the underrepresentation of women in science; this is particularly bad in Africa. Women are left behind. Science, especially physical science, is not considered a field for women. Many people think that if women go too far, they won't get a husband. But the situation is starting to change.
You are the President of the Third World Organization for Women in Science (TWOWS). What does this organization do?
We provide fellowships for postgraduate study, enlisting support from organizational benefactors. The fellowship recipients are usually sent to good universities in developing countries, such as South Africa or Pakistan, where the available money can go a long way. TWOWS also promotes collaboration among women from developing countries who are already established scientists.
But it's crucial to start at the earliest level, primary school. Researchers have learned that once girls get started in science, they do well. But they need to be encouraged by their teachers. If there is equipment available, it is used by the boys; the girls' role may be simply recording the results! So we are working hard to encourage the involvement of women scientists at all levels of education, to show the teachers that girls can be scientists.