Sticks and Stones or Rather Teeth?

I’m a bit behind in interesting posts. It seems that we have to search a little harder these days to find novel and interesting things to tell you about….and then things will just hit us and we’ll have some good material.

Ian and I decided to brave our way to Nairobi during the day this past week. This is risky simply because we are bound by the drop off and pick up times of the kids’ school day. We can leave for Nairobi just as we let the kids off at 8am, and have to be back by noon to get them. We figure an hour driving each way without traffic, which leaves us almost 2 hours for any errands we want to get done. Well, last week, as we were still sitting in traffic on Thika Road into Nairobi, we watched as various vendors walked by our car trying to hawk items to us. One man had a bundle of sticks. “Oh look, kindling” one of us exclaimed.


Esther, who was sitting in the back seat of the car having taken us up on an offer for a jaunt into town, started to guffaw. Not a polite laugh. I said, “What that’s not what they are?” She exclaimed, “No, those are chewing sticks”. Ahh, Ian and I both thought she must be referring to some kind of special tree that released a stimulant or some other drug upon chewing. Wrong again. Esther proceeded to explain that these sticks were used in place of toothbrushes in more rural areas of Kenya (like Western Kenya) and Africa. I think Ian and I both left that conversation thinking, “Huh, interesting.”


Fast forward to this week when I took Esther with me to help me talk to some local nurserymen about some plants I wanted to buy for my Shamba (garden). While browsing around at the plants, choosing an avocado tree, and then being done, the seller must have sensed that we were about to be out of his selling grasp. He questioned Esther and correctly guessed the tribe and area of Kenya that she originates from. With that he said, “Oh, I have something for you!” And what do you know, he popped up with those darn sticks to which Esther replied, “No, these are much too small!” Which caused him to run off in a hunt for a better stick which he brought. Esther grabbed that one too. I turned to her and said, “Is he giving them to you? Are you keeping them?” Which produced a “Duh” look from Esther and the verbal reply of “Of course I’m keeping them!” I haven’t seen her so pleased in days. Who knew a stick could produce so much pleasure! She repeated over and over on the way to the car how the sticks were familiar, and pleasing, and something she was used to.

Here is some excerped stick information I found on the web in a published article by Yoseph Negusse Araya:

“Miswak (chewing sticks)  were in use from as early as some 7000 years ago by the Babylonians; and later on throughout the Greek, Roman and Islamic empires. It is also believed to be the precursor to the modern day toothbrush and was used in Europe about 300 years ago (Lewis and Lewis, 1977).Today, miswak is being used in Africa, South America, Asia, the Middle East including Saudi Arabia, and throughout the Islamic countries (e.g. Yarde and Robinson, 1996; Hattab, 1997, Darout et al., 2005).


In terms of oral health, the major advantages of miswak over that of western toothbrush are that it is cost effective for users, especially for those in developing countries. This is because firstly, the miswak can be used for longer time duration – several weeks at a time. It usually is replaced when it gets too dry or rather more likely when lost. Another merit, unlike its common English name “toothbrush stick”, it is actually combined toothbrush and tooth paste. This further cuts down the cost, e.g. 75 ml tooth paste costs about US $ 2 in Asmara, several fold of the price of miswak (US $ 0.10). Another advantage is the ready availability of miswak in towns or villages. In addition, as it is dry and small size, it is easily carried around, hence enabling the user to prompt use after every meal or when killing time.

Despite these benefits, I think we’ll hold on to our rotating head Bob the Builder and Dora toothbrushes for a while…but I’d be happy to send some Miswak your way!

The Ameena Project

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