Bedroom performance boosters, whether potent or ineffectual backstreet concoctions, have not been in short supply — from Whites’s ginger (Mukombero) to the horny goat weed.
Initially only sold along the streets of Kakamega by young boys, now Mukombero, is available in almost all towns in Kenya.
Selling for anything between Sh20 and Sh40, motorists stop along major roads, including the Thika highway, to buy the root.
Mukombero is the root of Whites’s ginger, a slow-growing vine with a vanilla-like aroma.
Chewed out of Kenya’s central highlands years ago where it is known as muhukura, primarily for its medicinal value, Mukombero (scientific name mondia whytei) also gave way to farmland. Now it is threatened in its last home in Kakamega Forest.
Mr Edwin Juma, a vendor in Luanda, Vihiga County who makes between Sh26,000 and Sh60,000 annually, now says he has to walk deeper into Kakamega Forest in search of the threatened species.
“These days, it takes many hours of painstaking searching to get a mature plant.” To save the plant, researchers from the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology (Icipe) are teaching farmers in western Kenya how to domesticate it.
However, it is not clear whether farmland Mukombero will provide the kick associated with its wild cousin.
But do these natural aphrodisiacs really work? That depends on whom you ask. Mr Juma says Mukombero does, judging by the number of return clients he gets.
“If they didn’t get any kick out of it, do you think they would be coming back for more?”
Dr James Njoroge, a pharmacist who also deals in herbal medicine, agrees. He has for a long time administered another popular natural Viagra he claims is extracted from the horny goat weed.
Folklore has it that the plant was so named after a Chinese herder noticed a certain gush of virility in his goats after feeding on the plant.
“Although associated with China, some varieties of the weed (scientifically known as epimedium) grow in Kenya and are popular with our customers,” says Dr Njoroge.
Two years ago, researchers in Italy studied herbal extracts reputed to improve sexual performance. They exposed the substances to an enzyme that controls blood flow to the penis and whose inhibition results in an erection.
Of the extracts tested, the horny goat weed was reported to be potent. From the weed, scientists have extracted a chemical compound, icariin, said to have activity similar to Viagra and a potential for fewer side effects.
While studies show that Mukombero has some aphrodisiac properties, the rhino (for its horn) and the tiger (for its penis) may be suffering for no reason.
In one of the most extensive studies to be published later this month in the journal Food Research International, the virility associated with the tiger and other animal tales, such as the potency of the whale sperm, remain just that — tales.
A journal, Third World Medicine, reports that the treatment of guinea pigs with Mukombero extracts induced a significant increase in testosterone — the principal male sex hormone.
The study suggests that Mukombero possesses sex-stimulating properties, thus supporting its traditional use as an aphrodisiac.
The 2009 publication further indicates scientific evidence of the plant’s ability to increase libido. It is said to stimulate the production of testosterone and increase potency by improving sperm motility.
While it may seem a near impossibility to chew a whole plant species to extinction, Kenyans are doing just that. Those who are not up to chewing can take Mukombero as tea.
“Some people come from as far as Nairobi to harvest the vine from the forest. They then crush the leaves, roots, or the stem. After drying, they package the stuff in sachets for sale,” says Mr Juma.
Mukombero is hawked in bars, where the sale of alcohol competes favourably with prostitution. However, alcohol, nutritionists maintain, lowers sexual inhibition while reducing sexual performance in the long run.
But this has not stopped some communities from brewing a party from Mukombero. In West Africa, the roots are used to make an energising drink for wedding parties.
“Sounds familiar,” says Mr E. Mbijjiwe, a long-practising herbalist in Nairobi.
“Traditionally, combinations of known herbs have been used to re-energise the body, hence the famous “miti ni dawa” slogan which has come to be abused.”
According to Mr Mbijjiwe, miti dawa were not meant to be gulped the way people do in bars. Instead, they are meant to be consumed in a controlled manner to replenish the body’s energy.
Coupled with a good diet and exercise, miti dawa could lead to enhanced sexual performance. He further explains that herbal aphrodisiacs do not activate the “after burners” like Viagra, which is why quacks are adding conventional ingredients to herbs.
Researchers from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, will tell you that not all natural aphrodisiacs are safe. Excessive use of these products could lead to serious side effects.
Some of the documented side effects include panic attacks, kidney failure, hallucination, and sometimes death. The line between an effective and dangerous dose, they say, is unknown but thought to be quite narrow.
Ginseng, a common ingredient in most health supplements in the local market, is alleged to treat many conditions, including erectile dysfunction.
The Canadian study found that ginseng also improves sexual desire and arousal in both sexes, indicating a possibility that it could be the first known legitimate natural aphrodisiac. However, researchers recommend further studies.
Ginseng, they suggest, likely works like Viagra in relaxing muscles and improving blood flow to the genital region. Nutmeg, cloves, garlic, and ginger were also found to be moderately effective in studies carried out in animals.
Perhaps one of the more interesting natural aphrodisiacs studied by scientists in the past four years is a painful bite from the Brazilian wandering spider, phoneutria nigriventer. Its venom was found to stimulate an hour-long erection.
Emergency room personnel would easily tell a patient who had been bitten by this spider — not just from overall pain but an increase in blood pressure and an uncomfortable erection.
Researchers at the Medical College of Georgia have since managed to identify the chemical responsible for the erectile function and are still working to develop a drug.
The scientists, according to a report in LiveScience, suggested that a combination of a synthetic version of the spider venom coupled with a drug like Viagra would result in a magnified effect.