Growing up, my grandmother introduced me to the tradition of using a chewing stick. Despite the availability of toothbrushes in the house, it was amusing to watch her chew on a stick every morning. I was fascinated by how she would twirl it around in her mouth, meticulously cleaning each tooth. The sticks are usually cut from different kinds of medicinal trees, depending on availability, including neem, cashew, and Jatropha curcas (which we usually call lapalapa).
As I grew older, I found myself using the chewing stick. Of course, it did not become a staple in my daily routine like it was for my grandmother, but only a ceremonial element of my dental hygiene. I loved the feeling of the rough texture against my teeth and the subtle sweetness that was left in my mouth after each use. The chewing stick not only helped keep my teeth clean and provided some herbal benefits, but it also gave me a sense of connection to my heritage and culture. It was a simple tool, but it held so much significance and meaning, and I will always cherish the childhood memories with my grandma.
The culture of chewing stick has existed for a long time, predating the invention of toothpaste and toothbrushes, and is still common practice in many nations around the world today. Its usage has a diverse and complex cultural history, and different meanings apply to different cultures. In several African countries, it is seen as a symbol of excellent oral hygiene and is commonly used in traditional medicine to treat a range of dental problems. It is also a symbol of hospitality and is typically presented as a gift to visitors to welcome and show them respect.
The chewing stick is also a cultural emblem of identification in several cultures. In Ethiopia, for instance, it is a significant part of the country’s legacy and is often used by the elderly as a symbol of their ranking and wise judgment. Using a chewing stick is considered a rite of passage in certain cultures, and young children are typically instructed in its usage to prepare them for adulthood.
The culture of chewing sticks is steeped in tradition and history. It is believed to have originated in the Middle East and then spread to Africa, where it became an integral part of daily life. Its use has also been linked to a number of cultural and religious practices. In Islam, the chewing stick is considered to be a Sunnah, a practice recommended by the Prophet Muhammad. It is believed to be a way of purifying the mouth and promoting good health and is considered a symbol of cleanliness and religious devotion.
One of the key benefits of the chewing stick is its natural properties. The twigs used in the chewing stick contain antiseptic and antibacterial properties that help keep the mouth clean and free of germs. Additionally, the act of chewing the stick stimulates the production of saliva, which helps neutralise the acid in the mouth, reducing plaque and gum disease.
Despite its widespread use in the past, the culture of chewing sticks has declined in recent years, as more and more people have adopted modern oral hygiene practices such as brushing with toothpaste and flossing. However, there is a growing movement to revive the practice, as many people are beginning to realise the benefits of using natural and traditional methods for oral hygiene.
The widespread adoption of toothbrushes over chewing sticks as a tool for oral hygiene began in the 20th century, especially after World War II. Toothbrushes became more affordable and widely available, and their use was promoted through advertising and dental health education programs. Additionally, the development of new materials and manufacturing techniques led to toothbrushes with more effective bristles. As a result, toothbrushes became the preferred method of cleaning teeth in many countries, especially in Western cultures. However, chewing sticks are still commonly used in some parts of the world, particularly in developing countries where toothbrushes may be less accessible or affordable, and especially by cultural or spiritual practitioners in developed countries.
Toothbrushes are generally considered more hygienic than chewing sticks. Toothbrushes are specifically designed for cleaning teeth, have bristles that can reach all areas of the mouth and can be easily replaced regularly to prevent the buildup of bacteria. On the other hand, chewing sticks are not as effective in removing plaque and food particles and can easily transfer bacteria from the mouth to the stick and vice versa. Therefore, toothbrushes with fluoride toothpaste are recommended for optimal oral hygiene. However, for people like me, who would love to relish the cultural or spiritual undertone that comes with chewing sticks, or for those who would love to benefit from the herbal properties of medicinal twigs, adopting a hybrid approach to the use of chewing sticks and toothbrushes is not a bad idea. As I later taught my grandmother before her passing two years ago, one could chew a clean twig for a while before eventually washing up with a good toothpaste for an all-around hygienic experience. ∎
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Great story and so important to let the next generations know that there is vast opportunity in development of African hygiene technology versus nylon and fluoride! One comment I would make is I very much doubt that chewing stick for cleaning teeth came from the Middle East to Africa. these areas are basically deserts with few species. It is much more likely that Africa with its rich biodiversity was the origin of this kind of practice. Let’s just ask the question: What is the oral hygeine tradition of the Twa or the Khoisan? What do you think?