“Grandma’s hands”

Posted by

·How my grandmother cured our sinus and bronchial viruses

The neem tree

Today’s column starts off with the memory of two great artists who usually remind me of my grandmother. One is Bill Withers, the blues singer and composer, from whose song I borrowed the title of today’s column, “Grandma’s Hands”. The lyrics went like this:

“Grandma’s hands / Clapped in church on Sunday morning / Grandma’s hands / Played a tambourine so well / Grandma’s hands / Used to issue out a warning / She’d say, ‘Billy, don’t you run so fast / Might fall on a piece of glass / ‘Might be snakes there in that grass’ … Grandma’s hands / Used to ache sometimes and swell / …”

No crystal stair

The other artist was the iconic Langston Hughes whose literary works I studied in my undergrad years, including his poem, “Mother to son” which went partly as follows:

“Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair. / It’s had tacks in it, / And splinters, / And boards torn up, / … But all the time / I’se been a-climbin’ on, / And reachin’ landin’s, / And turnin’ corners, / And sometimes goin’ in the dark / Where there ain’t been no light. / So boy, don’t you turn back. / Don’t you set down on the steps / ’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard. / Don’t you fall now—.”

Those two artists tend to remind me of my Grandma. Never saw a more caring, hard-working woman! She was the last to go to bed at night; and the first to get up in the morning.

She lived way beyond a hundred years. When she died (and I drove to pick her body to the mortuary at Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital, Kumasi) there she lay, on a floor mat in her room, graceful and petite like a small girl! How could one believe that this tiny person – in her day, without a day of medical school – delivered the babies of pregnant women in the compound house and the general area. I recalled, also, how she’d grab us – her grandchildren – one by one, give us enemas, toss and juggle us upside down for the concoction to sink into our colons to relieve our constipation

I remember to this day (as I drove her corpse from Tutuka to Kumasi) the powerful track from Cindy Thompson’s Messiah album that blurred on the radio: “Awanwan Do”, (from Akan, “A love of wonder”).

 Growing up in Tutuka

I started class one living with Grandma in her mud house. Those were the colonial days – the mid-1950s. We went to school with two pennies for the day. The money were large Gold Coast copper coins with holes in them, some embossed with the crown of King George or Queen Elizabeth of England. Our instruction was to buy a penny’s worth of rice, and a penny’s meat. This lunch came wrapped in a large green leaf. We dug our hungry fingers into it from one end of the wrapper. The food was quite delicious as I recall, cooked and sold by a young woman – a victim of the polio disease, she staggered in her walk.

The neem therapy

Living in this village by Obuasi came with seasons of flu and harmattan colds. My Grandma, affectionately called Aunt Aba Yaba, had a grave distrust of the local hospital at the time. She had previously lost a son to the medics there. As a little boy, George had fallen badly in a football game and broken a shoulder. As we were told, he had been whisked off to the mine’s hospital for treatment only to be killed from an overdose of chloroform.

Hospitals are supposed to heal, but if the quality of care was creaky, would you send other beloved sons there? The raw evidence of the deadly past lived with Grandma. Distrust and necessity became the motherlodes of Grandma’s medicinal inventions. Her last husband too had died painfully of some lung ailment, so when – let’s say – some bronchial virus struck the household, the alarm bells rang, with her maternal instincts triggered to protect the children, all by herself.

So before a flu season or after a suspicious first cough, Grandma would collect and wash a hefty load of neem leaves in a bucket, add some choice ingredients to it, set it on a large coal pot to boil, often stirring the brew with a neem branch. Thereafter, she would grab the children one by one, cover our heads over the buckets with cloth for us to inhale the neem steam.

I remember coughing out – through both the nose and throat – hefty chunks of yellowish greenish mucus / phlegm caused by bouts of catarrh. These episodes happened early in the morning, in sufficiently good time to be released for school immediately.

Neem leaves to the rescue

One might not necessarily be a virologist; but could the neem plant – possibly – provide a cure for the pervading Covid-19? With our backs to the wall, could the healing properties of the leaves offer a solution?

According to Google: “Neem leaves can help treat a variety of disorders related to the heart, skin, and liver due to their antioxidant activity. They are effective against pathogenic bacteria, fungi, and viruses. The leaf extracts could be a popular option for managing diabetes as well.”

What to be learned about this freaky Corona virus is to assume – for safety’s sake – that one has either been exposed to it or been with another person who may have been exposed. Why not err on the side of prevention? On that note, my Grandma comes to mind: I’ve followed her concoction, and added ginger and garlic to the mix, boiled it, for inhaling the vapour. If for nothing at all, the resulting sweat pouring out of the skin pores after the treatment has been a perfect sauna or a Turkish steam bath at a negligible cost.

Pot of neem leaves, chopped garlic and ginger

Email: anishaffar@gmail.com
Website: http://www.anishaffar.com


  1. Thanks for the memory. Since we both grew up around the same period in Kumasi, my episodic virus attack from shingles (which the uninitiated called it “ntwum”) happened during my elementary school days in the early 50s. I was glad to be pulled out of school though. I was taken to the hospital , in those days called Gee (Kumasi Government Central Hospital). This was before the construction of Okomfo Anokye Hospital.

    Of course the doctor in charge prescribed Calomine lotion as the antidote for my illness. Unfortunately this was the wrong solution. Any application of any watery substance to the affected area increased the spread of the disease. The “sore” spreads around the trunk area of the body generally. It could occur on other parts of the body. Anecdotally, it is claimed that when the disease completes a circle around the trunk, the ultimate end is death. I am not sure of the validity of this statement.

    This is when grandma comes in. My grandmother, uneducated could neither read or write in English but read the Bible & sang all the Methodist hymnals in Fante when she attended church at the old Methodist at Adum, Kumasi. She remembered a concoction of local herbs (unfortunately I do not recollect the names) mixed and smashed on a long stone plate. She took a spout of this concoction to the end of her lips and spread it on the affected area. It hurts initially but after few minutes, it dried on my body and allowed me to engage in my childhood activities.

    I was happy to have a long vacation from school. I was unable to attend to my school work since my school authorities (Government Boys School) were afraid of infection. I was prohibited from taking a shower but occasionally took sponge bath (kramo style as it was known during our heydays). After few weeks the illness went away. Grandmothers are the greatest. Unfortunately they left no legacies for these “scientific” achievements.

    Thanks for the memories, my fellow Kumasi Fante New Town brother.

    Kwasi Eiwuley
    Manvel, Texas


  2. Very soothing. Brings up refreshing memories of how our mums and grandmas safeguarded our health as children, way before drug stores spring up at every corner. Let’s get back to the basics!

    God bless your soul Aunt Yaba 1.


  3. Well written article sir.

    One might be surprised to know that COVID-19’s cure might lie in orthodox or alternative forms of healthcare.

    Interesting to also know that before the inhaling of Robb oilment over a bucket of boiling hot water, there was the Neem Tree method.

    Thanks for the sharing


  4. My goodness, I love this, the story of your amazing grandmother, and the neem suggestion. Your writing is very readable, informative, and entertaining!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s