Tuesday, December 05, 2023
In the rural north of Cameroon, where they were born, very few women pursue scientific careers. But Sabine Adeline Fanta Yadang, 32, a doctor of neuroscience, and Hadidjatou Daïrou, 33, a doctor of cellular physiology, have overcome fate and prejudice.
On November 8, 2023, they were awarded the Prix Jeunes Talents L’Oréal-Unesco Pour les Femmes et la Science, among 30 scientists from sub-Saharan Africa, for “the quality of their research”.
Both were praised for their work on the potential of traditional medicinal plants in Cameroon for the treatment of cardiovascular and Alzheimer’s diseases.
The two young scientists work side by side in the laboratory of the Institut de recherches médicales et d’études des plantes médicinales (IMPM) in the capital Yaoundé.
Hadidjatou Daïrou delicately places the contents of a pipette in a Petri dish designed for growing micro-organisms.
Her encounter with medicinal plants dates back to her years as a pharmacology student at the University of Ngaoundéré, in the north of the country.
-Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease
I saw what a plant extract does to the human body, and how it can help people around me”, recounts the young woman who was honoured for her research into “the potential of the indica plant”.
Sabine Adeline, who prefers to be called Fanta Yadang, injects other samples into test tubes before centrifuging them.
She remains attached to her name Moundang, a people in the Far North region of Cameroon, where her grandparents already used plants to treat themselves.
“I wanted to become a doctor, but I didn’t pass the competitive examination. I wanted above all to help my fellow man, so I became interested in medicinal plants,” she explains.
“In a region where girls are not encouraged to go to school, she stood up to challenge stereotypes and overcome discrimination in the workplace,” states the competition organization.
She received the award because she “seeks to better understand the pathophysiology of neurodegenerative diseases, in particular Alzheimer’s, in order to find a new source of therapy in medicinal plants”.
Traditional, ancestral medicine is recognized as a health sector in its own right.
“In Cameroon, patients turn to plants before going to hospital”, assures Eric Owoundi Nkoa, phytotherapist and secretary of the Medicine and Pharmacopoeia Unit of the Ministry of Arts and Culture, who details: “70% to 80% of Cameroonians consume this natural medicine”.
For Hadidjatou, petit cola bark – the popular name for Garcinia Kola, a nut-like seed widely consumed in Africa to treat or relieve all kinds of ailments – could improve cardiovascular health. “Particularly for atherosclerosis, one of the major causes of heart attacks”, she explains.
Fanta Yadang, for her part, is banking on tigernut milk, widely consumed in Central Africa, extracted from a plant renowned locally for its medicinal virtues for thousands of years.
In the face of “very costly” conventional treatments to slow Alzheimer’s, the researcher hopes to prove that this plant will make it possible “to combat neuronal degeneration and reduce stress in the affected brain.”
In Cameroon, only 13% of girls in the relevant age bracket were enrolled in higher education, Unesco estimated in 2018. The two researchers are therefore an exception.
“In the North, where it’s said that girls don’t push their studies far, I’ve really demonstrated the opposite,” boasts Fanta Yadang. When she had to reconcile her studies with motherhood nearly 10 years ago, it was with her family that she found the strength to carry on.
“My father is a nurse and my mother a midwife. They used to tell us: study and it will make you something,” she recalls.
Hadidjatou’s father, a veterinary surgeon, was an unfailing supporter, pushing her to study for a doctorate. “Even when some of my companions thought I was taking too long a road. For many, a woman doesn’t need this to look after the home and risks not being ‘submissive’,” she laments.
With the 10,000 and 15,000 euro scholarships that accompany the Jeunes Talents prize, Hadidjatou will complete her thesis and Fanta will continue her research at the University of Ibadan, in neighboring Nigeria. “The future of Africa is in the hands of its scientists”, she proudly asserts.