When Najma Dharani first moved to Kenya 20 years ago, she was amazed at the diversity of trees, having just finished a Masters degree in Botany.
Being newly wed, she recalls her honeymoon with humour: “My husband Firoz took me camping to Lake Nakuru. l had never slept in a tent or seen such wilderness. I cried, thinking to myself: ‘Where has he brought me?’ You see, in Pakistan, we have cut down all the forests. There’s nothing left. Kenya, or shall l say East Africa still has so much.”
Travelling the region, Najma was frustrated looking for books on trees and shrubs of East Africa.
“The few books that were available had sketches and were mostly for the scientific community. There was nothing for the layman.
That’s when I had a brainwave — why not start photographing trees and other plants to produce a photographic book, that anybody would find easy to use?
There are photographic books on birds, wildlife, landscapes and people and so l thought, ‘Why not on trees?’”
In 1995, Najma began a project of photographing trees, in the process teaching herself photography.
She interviewed communities about the trees in their localities.
She soon accumulated enough pictures and information for a full-fledged book complete with coloured photographs of the full tree, bark, flowers and seeds including notes on flowering seasons and their uses.
“None of the Kenyan publishers were interested in publishing a book in which they saw little potential. I used my own money to travel and photograph the trees but nobody was interested.”
Not one to give up easily, she hit the jackpot doing an Internet search on publishers.
Officials from Struik Publishers, an acclaimed South African firm, flew in to seal a deal and Najma’s first book, aptly named, Field Guide to Common Trees and Shrubs of East Africa was published in 2002.
Since then, there have been seven reprints and a second edition will be published this April with 90 new species added in.
Followed by the success of her first book, Najma’s second venture was to work on a book about the acacias of East Africa, these being her favourite trees.
Field Guide to Acacias of East Africa was also published by Struik Publishers in 2006 with several reprints.
It is the first comprehensive photographic book of all 62 recognised species, subspecies and varieties of Acacia trees in East Africa.
Currently there are 1,342 species documented in the world with 132 found in Africa and 62 in East Africa.
“When l saw my first African acacia, the yellow-barked acacia, l was amazed at how unique it was. Everything about it was fascinating — the bark, the thorns, the leaves and the flowers.”
Where most people simply pass by what was falsely believed to be a fever-causing trees, called the fever tree by the early European explorers, for Najma it was the start of a study in progress.
“The acacia is symbolic of Africa. At that time, there was only one book on acacias and that was Henk Beentje’s book, which had pencil drawings. So l saw another opportunity arise.
“It was a lot of hard work. I travelled all over East Africa, sometimes as many as three times for a tree according to the seasons. Some species are only found in certain areas and flower or seed in different months,” she recalls.
Her persistence paid off. She identified three new species: Acacia firozei, A. kenyensis and A. tirion and one hybrid, A laeta hybrid with A. mellifera.
She recalls her first discovery. A. firozei, named for her husband, is found near Mandera in Kenya’s remote northeast.
“It was an amazing feeling when I first saw the shrub. There was nothing in the guidebooks about it.
After sending samples to the East African Herbarium in Nairobi, it was verified as a new species by the taxonomist Geoffery Mwachala.
All the new species have been verified at the E.A. Herbarium.
She says in East Africa, there is a feeling that wild animals are more important than plants, “People unfortunately do not give so much importance to trees and hence their destruction.
“There is a need for awareness. The use of plants and plant derivatives for preventing and treating human diseases is as old as civilisation itself,” continues Najma.
This led to her third self-published book. The full colour illustrated guidebook titled Medicinal Plants of East Africa (1st edition 2010) is the first photographically illustrated guide to East Africa’s most important medicinal plants, tallying 136 species.
This time she teamed up with Dr Abiy Yenesew, a PhD in chemistry and an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Nairobi for the chapters on pharmacology and chemistry for each species.
It explains the existing scientific understanding of the active chemical compounds and the healing properties.
“Modern science has validated many of the healing attributes for which individual plant species have long been used traditionally.
“According to the World Health Organisation, there are over 10,000 “highly valued medicinal plants species that are in everyday use on the continent.
“The mganga or the traditional medicine man is an important and highly respected figure in African society,” she say.
In her book Najma explains the crucial role of the medicine man in Africa and other developing countries.
There are 650,000 traditional healers and herbalists in East Africa and 65 per cent of East Africans consult them regularly for diseases ranging from malaria to afflictions related to HIV/Aids.