At 87 years old, she is wrinkled, bent and partially deaf. But Salwa Mohammed al-Akra who lives in the Akra area, about 70km west of Dohuk city in northern Iraq, still practices the skills she learned as a teenager: herbal medicine. And she does it all for free.
Visiting al-Akra in her home, one is first met by her 40-year-old granddaughter, who shows patients into the room where they will be treated. Then one meets al-Akra herself, an old woman, her hair dyed henna red.
She talks about how she’s been working in herbal medicine since she was 16 years old. “It’s run in my family for hundreds of years,” al-Akra says. “My grandfather, eight generations ago, used to prescribe herbal remedies to people and most of my family have had something to do with it. I personally owe my own work to my mother, who was educated and able to read and write. She left me a book full of recipes for herbal remedies but I lost it in the 1940s when I was moving around the country with my father, while he was fighting with the Kurdish rebels [the Peshmerga].”
Al-Akra used to go into the forests and fields with her mother to pick herbs and flowers; her mother also taught her how to dry and store them. These days, because she is not as physically fit, her grandsons help her collect any ingredients she needs. “Or I prescribe something and let the patient’s relatives go out and find the necessary herbs,” she explains.
And she has always provided her services free of charge. After her husband died 30 years ago, she became even more passionate about helping people. “Some patients donate money when they get better,” she admits. “But with this I buy clothes and distribute them to the poor.”
She realises that her profession is becoming extinct because most people go and see conventional doctors. This is part of the reason she continues to treat patients for free. “I feel so happy when I can help,” al-Akra says. “This is what I love the most and it keeps me going, it gives meaning to my life.”
“I’ve practiced this profession everywhere I’ve been,” al-Akra says. “In Iran, where we lived for 15 years. Then in Basra, when we were deported there. And in Baghdad.” Now she has patients around the country, from Erbil in the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan, down to Baghdad. She even has regulars who live in Turkey and who call her up on her mobile phone to get her herbal recipes for good health.
Al-Akra says she’s able to help with the following kinds of problems: infertility, fractures and bruises, headaches. Back pain, skin disease and various children’s ailments. In fact some local doctors of conventional medicine have sent women with fertility issues to her.
Al-Akra herself does not visit conventional doctors – if ever she’s had anything wrong, she has treated herself with herbs. She’s no magician though – unlike some other practitioners of alternative medicines, al-Akra doesn’t claim she can cure serious disease like cancer or diabetes. In these areas, she says she can only give preventative tips.
One thing that has frustrated her is when patients don’t listen to her advice – especially those with infectious diseases whom she tells not to socialise until they’re recovered.
“I still remember the first time I had to treat someone all by myself,” al-Akra recalls. “An injured child came to us and I had to clean the wound, apply medicine and then bandage it. My mother was very encouraging. In fact, she used to pretend she was busy with other jobs if something came in that I could handle on my own. That’s how I learned.”
The grandmother says she has tried to encourage her children into herbal medicine. “I have three sons and one daughter and I had hoped that my daughter would want to learn, in the same way that I learned from my mother,” al-Akra says sadly. “But she wasn’t really interested.”
Then again, al-Akra says her children have their own lives and families to take care of. The path she has taken is not for everyone. As she says, “my profession is difficult and requires patience, dedication and sacrifice, as well as concentration so as to avoid any mistake in the preparation of medications.”