Technology has changed how we do things generally and made life easier, but one of the beauties of Africa is the fact that many of the natural and sustainable ways of doing things are very much alive. We want to introduce you to Taa Kotsa & Sawie, the natural Ghanaian toothbrushes that come from a plant.

A toothbrush that has transcended generations and has remained strong within Ghanaian local communities despite globalization and modernisation.

Brief history of the toothbrush around the world

Did you know that before toothbrushes were even invented, people used a piece of cloth and water to clean their teeth? History says that it’s only about 150 years ago that people began using the toothbrush.

Others rubbed things like salt and chalk across their teeth; but in other areas, among the Arabs, Babylonian, Greek and African societies, chewing sticks and sponges were preferred. These tools, made from the root, stem or twigs of more than 180 plants, were found next to buried Babylonians and in Egyptian tombs from 3000 B.C.

According to the World Health Forum, many cultures in Africa, Asia, the America and Middle East, continue to use these natural tools instead of toothbrushes because of cost, availability, traditions, and religious reasons.

In Ghana, we can find two types of natural toothbrushes: “taa kotsa” and the chewing stick. One main difference between the two is that the taa kotsa, apart from cleaning teeth, also removes bad breath, whilst the chewing stick is used only for teeth cleaning purposes. Let’s have a look more in detail at each one.

Ghanaian toothbrushes: Taa Kotsa and the chewing stick

Taa Kotsa or Sawie

Known as Taa kotsa by the Ga people and as Sawie by the Akans, the taa kotsa still has a very strong presence among many local communities in Ghana. Its continuous use has made its place in the market still relevant, despite the availability of toothbrushes and toothpaste.

It is passed from generation to generation. Parents teach their children to use it, so it is the first thing they do when they wake up.

The sponge is particularly used for teeth cleaning, takes away bad odors and freshens the mouth. As it comes from plants, it has antibacterial, anti fungal and some anti viral properties. It is advised to use it for a minimum time of 5 minutes, 5 times a day to get clean effectiveness.

The use of taa kotsa also stimulates saliva production which aids in neutralizing the acids in our mouth. Its antibacterial properties help take care of the bacteria in the mouth and it also has calcium that helps mineralise our teeth.

Other uses of the taa kotsa

The taa kotsa is also used by the Ga people, one of the main ethnic groups and languages in Ghana. They use it to hold a ceremony for the dead called kotsa agbamo.

Kotsa agbamo is a sponge splitting exercise translated loosely as part of a funeral and burial right during which friends, family and mourners provide a portion of a sponge which will be shared among persons present. They also use some of the sponge to bathe the corps.

Last but not least, it is said that it can also be boiled and used to treat piles as well as to clear phlegm from your system.

The chewing stick, or locally known as Sokudua

Chewing sticks made from the roots or stem of plants, have been used for teeth cleaning in many parts of the world. There are over 180 plant species which can be used as a natural tooth brush with lime, orange or neem trees as a common example in Ghana.

Known as sokudua by the Akans, or as miswak, the chewing stick helps mechanically to remove plaque from the accessible parts of the teeth. It may contain some alkaloid which may reduce acidity of the mouth and help prevent tooth decay and plaque formation (due to its abilities of massaging and strengthening the gum).

In the least, the saliva produced while chewing the stick is good for the teeth, the same way we have seen with the taa kotsa.

The plant from which the chewing stick comes, contains antimicrobial compounds. These compounds include the tannin (the bark of the chewing stick), which is the same as fluoride in toothpaste. It also contains volatile oils, tannic acid, sulfur and sterols which contribute to some of the benefits we mentioned above.

The chewing stick is chewed until one end is frayed or forms bristles. This end is used to brush the teeth while the other end can be used as a toothpick.

The chewing stick is very accessible, cheap and can be seen as another source of livelihood for many women who sell it at the local markets in Accra. According to the women, no part of the chewing stick plant is wasted along the value chain. The dried ones, which are unsuitable for teeth cleaning, are used for making ice cream sticks, whereas the main part of the wood is used for fish smoking.

It is said that the chewing stick is also used by some people to boost their appetite for food and for spiritual cleansing in newborns.