Medicinal foods and beverages among Maasai agro-pastoralists in northern Tanzania

J Ethnopharmacol. 2018 Apr 24;216:191-202. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2018.01.022. Epub 2018 Feb 2.


Ethnopharmacological relevance: Pastoralist Maasai populations of east Africa use several different wild plants as dietary and medicinal additives in beverages (soups and teas), yet little is known about how the plants used and the rationales for use compare and contrast across different Maasai beverages, including how gender specific dietary and health concerns structure patterns of intake.

Aim of the study: We investigated three Maasai beverages: almajani (tea or herbal infusion); motorí (traditional soup); and okiti (psychoactive herbal tea). In order to build knowledge about the cultural functions of these Maasai food-medicines and their incidence of use we also investigated use rationales and self-reported frequencies of use. We conclude by examining gender differences and the possible pharmacological antimicrobial activity of the most frequently used plants.

Materials and methods: Research was conducted in 2015, with a population of semi-nomadic agropastoralist Maasai residing in northern Tanzania. Data were collected using key informant interviews, plant collections, n = 32 structured surveys, and n = 40 freelist interviews followed by a literature review to determine the known antimicrobial activity of the most used plants.

Results: We identified 20 plants that Maasai add to soup, 11 in tea, and 11 in the psychoactive tea, for a total of 24 herbal additives. Seven plant species were used in all three Maasai beverages, and these clustered with 10 common ailments. Based on self-reports, women use the beverages less frequently and in smaller amounts than men. There were also several gender differences in the plants that Maasai add to motorí and their associated use rationales.

Conclusions: There are several intersections concerning the plant species used and their associated rationales for use in almajani, motori, and okiti. Moving outward, Maasai beverages and their additives increasingly involve gender specific concerns. Female use of food-medicines, relative to men, is structured by concerns over pregnancy, birth, and lactation. The frequent consumption of herbal additives, many of which contain antimicrobial compounds, potentially helps modulate infections, but could have other unintentional effects as well.

Keywords: Antimicrobial; Food-medicines; Pregnancy and lactation; Psychoactive substances; Sub-Saharan Africa; Teratogens.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Oral
  • Adult
  • African Continental Ancestry Group* / psychology
  • Anti-Infective Agents / administration & dosage*
  • Anti-Infective Agents / adverse effects
  • Anti-Infective Agents / isolation & purification
  • Beverages*
  • Female
  • Food*
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice / ethnology
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Male
  • Medicine, African Traditional*
  • Middle Aged
  • Phytotherapy
  • Plant Extracts / administration & dosage*
  • Plant Extracts / adverse effects
  • Plant Extracts / isolation & purification
  • Plants, Medicinal / adverse effects
  • Plants, Medicinal / chemistry*
  • Plants, Medicinal / classification
  • Psychotropic Drugs / administration & dosage*
  • Psychotropic Drugs / adverse effects
  • Psychotropic Drugs / isolation & purification
  • Risk Factors
  • Sex Factors
  • Tanzania
  • Transients and Migrants* / psychology


  • Anti-Infective Agents
  • Plant Extracts
  • Psychotropic Drugs