When power of science triumphed over witchdoctors

A field doctor treating small pox patient in Kenya December 1985. [File, Standard]

Eighty-nine years ago, medics were not roaming around Afya House in search of tenders or medical supplies they could spirit away to clinics for a profit. They trekked around the villages sometimes riding donkeys and bicycles nudging the rural folk to go to hospitals when sick instead of rushing to soothsayers.  

Government records show that 1933 was particularly a bad year for Kenya because portions of the country were hit by epidemics that wiped out hundreds. A small pox epidemic swept across North Eastern, Tana River and coastal region where it killed hundreds.

The government vaccinated a record 400,000 people. Nairobi was also afflicted, but the Director of Medical Services initiated measures that arrested the situation before the disease spread.

Commenting on the numbers that had turned up in hospitals in the year, acting Governor, Amigel De Vins Wade remarked in his report to the Legco on June 26, 1935: "The phenomenal increase in the number of Africans who come to hospitals and dispensaries, for medical treatment is one of the most emphatic signs of progress of our African people."

According to the governor, “It means the power of witch doctor is yielding to the power of science. A few years ago, it was difficult to induce a native to come to hospital."

The governor was pleased that in 1934, a million Africans had been treated in hospitals where between 5,000 and 6,000 operations were performed under anesthesia.

It was telling that the government had registered this milestone after colonising Kenya for almost 40 years. Interestingly at that time, the taxes raised from Kenyans in form of hut tax stood at £514,777 (about Sh87,954,798.22 in today's exchange rate), which fell short of the budgeted target by £56,777 (Sh9,700,918.22).

Although this was recorded as the lowest collection since 1922, the government had been optimistic that it would raise £571, 554, (Sh97,655,716.44) at a time the country was suffering from drought and epidemic, and the world was in the throes of the Great Depression.

Decades later, Kenya finds herself in a similar quandary although the actors are dissimilar. The country has just come from a global pandemic, Covid-19, which claimed thousands, followed by a severe drought and a divisive election.

Now prophets have taken over from witches and Christians are dying in their hundreds at Shakahola in Kilifi. Meanwhile, hospitals are without essential supplies as the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority has been taken hostage by crooked entrepreneurs.