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Chewing stick or toothbrush?

My Magazine 2022/11
2 min
Brush your teeth every day, dentists say. In Africa, that can mean keeping your toothbrush in your mouth all day. Many people in The Gambia go about their daily business with a small chewing stick, locally known as soo chu guru, or twig protruding from their mouth, which they chew or use to scrub their teeth.

Usually cut from kola or other wild trees and shrubs in the bush, this is the African toothbrush. It is much more natural, effective and cheaper than the prettily packaged but pricey dental products in pharmacies and supermarkets. Most people in The Gambia use chewing sticks even though the price of both toothbrushes and toothpaste have reduced in recent years with the inflow of brands from Asia.

According to estimates, 47% of Gambian adults use it, and more than 75% use it during the Muslim month of Ramadan. There is something religious and even magical about the use of chewing sticks. Some say it complies with the Hadith traditions of the Prophet, while others believe that chewing some sticks enhances the voice's "blessing" and authority. Before asking for some favours, many people chew on sticks from particular plants. Many, however, go for it for more mundane purposes.

It is believed to clean your teeth better than plastic brushes, with the liquid that comes from the wood. It's good for the stomach and head; it whitens your teeth and gets rid of bad breath. Their users say the sticks are also medicinal, providing not just dental hygiene but also curing various other ills. Dental experts agree they seem to clean teeth well, so even some health stores in a few European countries have started to sell chew-sticks as a natural form of dental care.

Traders in Banjul, Serekunda, Brikama and other Gambian towns sell neatly packed bundles of pencil-sized sticks on the pavements, offering various types of wood at different prices.

The World Health Organization has encouraged the use of chewing sticks as an alternative source of oral hygiene in developing countries where many cannot afford commercial dental products. In primarily Muslim Gambia, people say there is religious precedent for the use of chewing sticks. In holy Islamic writings known as the Hadith, the Prophet Mohammed recommends their use as part of cleaning rituals, essential to daily prayers. 

Although commercially made toothbrushes are available, many people prefer chew sticks as it is natural, and the price helps too. While a manufactured toothbrush can cost upwards of D50, a chew stick costs most D5. Each type of stick has a different story and origin associated with it. For example, the one named Matou-Kel was believed to bring luck. It is named after the tree it was cut from where bush deers like to feed and rest.

Another wood variety, Soumpou, was traditionally used to provide a liquid used to cook a fortifying dish, Laakh, which is made with millet – it gives energy. 

However, one should be careful when using chewing sticks, as too-vigorous scrubbing can push back the gums, causing gum recession and exposing teeth roots to damage and decay.


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