WASHINGTON (RNS)-- After escaping slavery in Egypt, Israelites wandered in the wilderness, according to the book of Exodus, with little to eat and even less to drink.

Their joy at finding a river was short-lived as they soon discovered its waters were bitter and undrinkable.

But then Moses "cried unto the Lord," and "The Lord showed him a tree, which when he had cast into the waters, the waters were made sweet..."

Researcher Lowell Fuglie doesn't know for sure what tree helped quench the thirst of Moses and other Israelites in the desert thousands of years ago, but he's got a hunch a similar plant could help end malnutrition and fight AIDS in Africa.

"The Moringa tree has been around for a very long time--people have always known its value," said Fuglie, who heads the West Africa regional office for Church World Service in Dakar, Senegal. "It can purify dirty water in less than an hour--it can do so many different things."

Fuglie has dedicated himself the past two years to exploring the tree's possibilities and its implications for African countries. Partnering with Senegalese health clinics and Alternative Action for African Development, a government health service, Fuglie helped lead a Church World Service project in southwestern Senegal that studied the nutritional value of the Moringa tree and its use as a weapon against the widespread malnutrition that afflicts Africa.

"We convinced various doctors at eight different health outposts to recommend Moringa leaf powder to mothers of malnourished infants to see what effect it would have," said Fuglie, who has worked 11 years in Africa with Church World Service, the relief agency of the U.S. National Council of Churches. "Usually they recommend a combination of milk powder, vegetable oil, sugar and peanut butter. By the end of the project all of these health posts had abandoned the old treatments of imported items, and now they were all using Moringa to treat cases of malnutrition."

The Moringa tree is a fountain of minerals and vitamins, said Fuglie, noting that much of the tree--from root to flowers--is edible.

"Gram for gram, Moringa leaves contain three times the iron of spinach, four times the vitamin A of carrots, seven times the Vitamin C of oranges, three times the potassium of bananas, and four times the calcium and twice the protein of milk," he explained. "Nutritionally, you can't beat it."

Parents of malnourished children in Senegal reported rapid weight gains within months after they added Moringa to their infants' diets.

Common throughout Africa, India and Central America, the tree is particularly well-suited to the arid climate of many countries in Africa, Fuglie said, because it is resistant to drought.

"The Moringa tree grows very well in very dry conditions, like sandy soil and direct sunlight," he said, "so it is an ideal tree for those areas where malnutrition is the biggest problem, the dry arid areas of the sub-Saharan region."

The Moringa tree is particularly well-suited to countering malnutrition because its leaves emerge just before the end of the dry season, when leafy green vegetables are often unavailable.

"When you look at malnutrition in West Africa, you're looking at a lack of iron, a lack of protein, a lack of vitamin A--in effect, you're looking at malnutrition caused by a lack of the very things Moringa contains so much," he said. "When you look at the classic approaches to dealing with malnutrition in Africa, you see organizations importing enriched biscuits or vitamin A tablets made in the United States. That's ridiculous. Here is an indigenous nutritional supplement that people can grow in their own back yards."

Fuglie said the tree's nutritional value also could help boost the immune system of people living with AIDS or infected with the HIV virus, which causes AIDS.

"One thing HIV-infected people must do is maintain as high a basic nutritional standard as they can," said Fuglie, who presented a workshop about the Moringa tree during the HIV/AIDS & Malaria International Conference in mid-April in Atlanta. "One way to do this is through the Moringa tree--it's an all-natural source of nutrition that could help people with HIV and AIDS live longer and healthier lives."

Though the Moringa tree has earned many fans, including National Council of Churches President and former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young (who asked well-wishers to donate Moringa seeds instead of flowers when he was hospitalized last December for prostate surgery), the U.S. medical community remains skeptical, Fuglie said.

"We do have the Western academic skepticism to overcome," he said in a post-conference interview. "We found this true in Senegal, too--the doctors and nurses and medical professionals we presented it to all knew about the tree, they had eaten it many times, but they've gone through Western training and been taught to rely on imported drugs made in the West. So they see this local plant as herbal medicine and as inferior to modern Western medicine."

Fuglie himself cautioned that the Moringa tree is no miracle cure-all but rather a small, but important, player in a range of possible remedies.

"The Moringa tree is not a solution in and of itself," he said. "It is not a silver bullet, but a useful tool in helping combat these problems. Moringa by itself is good, but you still need other remedies to help."

Fuglie said he plans to extend the Senegal project on Moringa into other parts of Senegal and other West African countries, and he hopes to organize an international conference on Moringa within the next year.

"An international conference is long overdue because this is such extraordinary research with varied applications," Fuglie said. "Every part of the tree has medicinal applications that deserve to be studied. We haven't begun to scratch the surface of what Moringa is capable of doing."

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