She is the tree lady of Tamale. Her name is Dr. Hadjia Salamatu Taimako. She says her last name means "healing." She calls herself a "traditional healer."
"I can help with many sicknesses because of the herbs I know. If someone is having a baby, they come to Momma Taimako," she says. "I can usually help, but I know if they are too sick I must call for the doctor to take them to the hospital."
But Momma is also a doctor and how a woman who cannot read or write came to be honored as doctor is quite a story. It begins and ends with her love and understanding of trees. Especially the mahogany tree, which she admits is her favorite. "You can boil it and drink the water," she says. "It will heal you. You can use the bark and the roots as well."
DR.MOMMA: She calls herself a traditional healer and relies on native plants like mahogany and bitter leaf to treat all kinds of illness. Her trees provide a cure of a different sort.
Oddly it was the lack of a mahogany tree that started her on the road to being one of the foremost propagators of trees in North Ghana some 20 years ago. When Mommy Taimako could not find a mahogany tree to make into medicine, she decided it was time to plant her own. She went to the Department of Forestry and requested some seedlings to plant in her nursery.
"I told them I need mahogany trees," she says. "Show me how to plant them and will do it."
The department had teak and cashew seedlings to give out, but no mahogany. So she went to the Ministry of Food and Agriculture. "They have mahogany and other trees. But I remember this very tall white man said, 'We will not allow you to have them. You will just kill them.' He did not think I could make them grow."
Finally the white man gave a single tree to try and another MOFA worker slipped her two more. "And I planted them in the nursery and they were my children," she says with a laugh.
She also planted about 100 of the cashew trees at the time. Then she went to the drain sewers to find mango seeds. She planted 100 of these in the nursery too. Tending the first trees took a lot of water because the area was already in the Harmattan or dry season. From about November until March the African savanna will get little or no rain. "But I give them water and sun, every night and day," she says.
DRYER: This plastic sheet provides a simple solar dryer to process all kinds of fruits at Taimako Ent.
And Mommy Taimako made the trees grow. Next she was taught how to graft branches to the mangoes to encourage them to produce in fruit in 3 years instead of the normal 12. She developed her own compost – "mix grasses and soil and animal feces and water and leave it and turn it – so it will be hot like fire. In 6 weeks it is cool and compost is ready for planting."
She continued her planting adding paw paw or papaya and guava to her mangoes and cashews and mahoganies.
The trouble is no one came to buy her trees. With no money, Momma decided she would just share the trees with local schools. She sent them letters telling them to come and get a tree to plant in their school yard. And they did. And the children saw the trees and heard that they would grow fruit to eat and asked their parents if they could have a tree at their home too.
So the parents came with their children and bought trees to plant. They discovered that trees around the house make life cooler when dry season temperatures soar above 90 degrees F.
"Now anyone who is building a house comes to buy a tree," Momma says. "You should plant trees around your house and flowers too," she says. "It is good for people and animals. Even if you just look at them, it is good for your health."
Momma continued to plant trees. "How many?" I ask. She just laughs. "Too many to count," says her daughter Ibrahim Hajara Taimako "I have only worked with her for 9 years and I myself have grafted more than a million trees."
Ibrahim is now the head of food processing for Taimako Plants and Herbal Medicine. She oversees production sales of a line of solar-dried mangoes, bananas, and coconut. The company also sells cassava and yam flour, ginger and pepper spices and sesame seeds.
DAUGHTER: I can vouch for tastiness of the dried mangoes and bananas that are offered as part of the Bobobo Foods line produced by Taimako Ent. overseen by Ibrahim Hajara Taimako, one of Momma's nine children.
Momma has been asked to attend development conferences in hotels where foreign visitors from Non Governmental Agencies asked her questions about how she grew so many trees. Her Mango plantings turned into a 140-acre plantation. The ITFC company which is planting hundreds of acres of mangoes organically around Tamale asked her to help them with their nursery stock.
Then one day a letter came from the university. It asked Momma to come to graduation to receive and honorary doctorate. "I hid the letter when I heard that," she says. "I knew it was a mistake. How could a woman who cannot read or write become a doctor?"
The government leaders were insistent. They wanted to hold Momma up as an example of what perseverance and hard work could do. Thus one fine sunny day Momma Taimako put on the cap and gown and received a doctorate degree in horticulture.
VISITORS: It's not unusual to find guests at the Taimako operation from the umpteen NGOs in the Tamale region. Momma also has a school for girls at the site.
The accomplishmet has not phased her. "I teach the children about plants and trees," she says. "One day my grandchildren will benefit."
No doubt this doctor has more healing power than we can ever imagine.