When doctors 'can't see' your disease


Harison Olala, a 40-year-old man who has suffered psychological torture since he was infected by ascites disease more than two years.[James Omoro,Standard]

You could be sick, feeling like dropping dead any minute, but when you consult a doctor…shock on you! all the tests return negative results. The doctor ‘cannot see’ your illness.

It happened to Martin Otieno, a bank employee. He was in unbearable pain but the doctor found nothing wrong with him after running tests for malaria, typhoid fever, flu, Pneumonia, H. Pylori, diabetes and HIV. His blood pressure was also normal. So were his sugar levels. 

Otieno was given painkillers and asked to exercise. The doctor concluded the pains were from work-related fatigue. But the pain persisted. He sought a herbalist and it was then that he learnt his ‘sickness’ may have been caused by skipping some cultural rites after his father’s burial.

Instead of staying four days at their rural home in Chianda village, Siaya County, Otieno returned to Nairobi and flew to Dubai. The pain disappeared after fulfilling the Luo burial customs he had ignored.

Otieno’s case is not the first where medics have failed to diagnose a patient with any sickness only for it to disappear after ‘consulting elders’ on missing cultural aspects suspected to have caused it.  

Indeed, medical conditions related to cultural aspects sweep across fertility, childbirth, mental illness, miscarriages, neonatal ailments and circumcision. Not taking a newborn for ‘blessings’ by the grandparents has been known to cause illnesses which disappear after a ‘saliva spitting’ visit to the said grandparents. Some untraceable illnesses have also been believed to be caused from failure to name a child after some ancestor who had demanded the honour.

Others have suffered recurring illnesses and successive, mysterious deaths in a single family from skipping, ignoring or being oblivious of certain customary requirements with urban dwellers who swear by modernity and their faith being the most affected.

Ann Nekesa, a fashion designer in Nairobi, considered herself a modern graduate and skirted certain Luhya customary birth rites including not seeing the sun for four days after the birth of her son and “what followed were a series of miscarriages, which even the doctors could not help,” she says recalling that it was only after a traditional ritualist conducted rites reversing her miscarriages. Nekesa is now a happy mother of four.

Some women among the Luo experienced weight loss, altered complexions, endless hiccups after getting adulterous soon after giving birth, says Luo elder Ochieng’ Andedo from Ugenya, Siaya County. Others suffered infertility and only cultural rituals involving concoctions and roast gweno (chicken) mostly a cock, reportedly rectified the situation.   

Men who got promiscuous after their wives gave birth before eradiating okola with them also risked infant deaths, with the performing of certain rituals by elders averting the inevitable.  

Among the Kikuyu, skipping certain bride price requirements, like receiving bride price when you had not given any yourself, has been blamed for miscarriages, deformities in children and premature deaths. 

Pharmacist Ruth Mwikali of Outering Chemist says the same happens among her Kamba people when certain rites like bride price protocol, not feeding mourners or naming children after grandparents, are ignored and the culprits end up suffering certain abnormalities including lunacy.

The naming of children was believed to be another cause of unknown illnesses. For instance, in Western Kenya, children not named after some relatives would develop incessant pain and it was only after elders called out the aforementioned ancestor’s names did a child stop crying and were thereafter given the new name which ‘cured’ the illness.

Dr Joseph Nyamu of Lucky Medical Clinic in Nairobi concurs that it was not just in Western Kenya as the same happens among people in Central Kenya where “failure to name your firstborn daughter after your mum and firstborn son after your dad can have far reaching implications on the child or parent; these can include sicknesses unknown to doctors.”

Dr Nyamu has seen patients brought foaming at the mouth while others are tongue tied and after medics can hardly diagnose the ailment, they’re shipped to their rural hamlets where village elders perform missing cultural rites.  

You must have heard of relatives with ‘bad eyes’ who also cause their victims to experience stomach pains, nausea and vomiting which explains why mothers of a certain generation applied mafuta ya nguruwe on their city children before trooping upcountry during routine ceremonies or holiday visits. 

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