“What do you call a doctor in your mother tongue?” Maina Mwea asks in a tone that seeks to prove his assertion.
“Daktari...?” I respond, and it irks him.
“You see!” he says. “This is how much we have been brain washed.”
Maina is a trained pharmacist, but he ventured into traditional medicine. At one time, he was a chief pharmacist at Kenyatta National Hospital.
It is not that his passion for modern medicine died, but he believes before drips, syringes, capsules and tablets, Africans still recovered from the same diseases by treating themselves traditionally, even if the government is not keen to acknowledge this fact.
“We are recognised in the law as witches under the Ministry of Sports and Culture. So there is basically no difference between us and traditional dancers,” says Maina.
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The 1925 Witchcraft Act was legislated in order to outlaw the practice of traditional medicine due to its association with black magic and to pave way for modern medicine.
Some sections of the Act were later repealed in 1962, and in 1985 and the herbalists were put under the Ministry of Culture.
Ronald Inyangala, director Product Evaluation and Registration at the Pharmacy and Poisons Board, however, notes that there is no law that governs herbal medicine.
He references that while doctors and pharmacists have the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Board and nurses the Nursing Council of Kenya, there is none for herbalists.
“So the Witchcraft Act does not apply to them. They are not witch doctors. In fact, most of the herbalists I have met are quite religious,” he says.
The fight for traditional medicine to be recognised has been documented in a report dated July 25, 2020 compiled by scholars from the University of Nairobi.
The study, titled Traditional Medicine in Kenya: Past and Current Status, Challenges and Way Forward published by Elsevier journal, notes that one of the reservations in the uptake of traditional medicine is due to the false claims some of them profess.
“The lack of scientific data to verify the efficacy (of the herbs) may lead to wastage of resources on non-efficacious products, which may result in overdoses, side effects or even death due to ingestion of poisonous materials,” reads the study.
In June 2019, the Pharmacy and Poisons Board shut 30 health facilities for selling unverified drugs, some with claiming to cure cancer. Infertility, low libido and general claim to improve immunity are the other major selling points of almost every herbal clinic that sprouts in the country.
And now that there is Covid-19 – not even a year old after it was first reported by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on December 31, 2019 – there are already claims, not just in Kenya, but in other African nations of traditional remedies.
In April, Madagascar launched Covid-Organics, a drink believed to treat coronavirus, which WHO said was not a cure. It was the same case in the late 90s and early 2000s when Tanzanian traditional medicine man Loliondo Babu marketed his special drink boiled from some indigenous root as the cure for HIV and Aids.
“We can treat all types of conditions, you name it – as long as it is curable,” Maina insists. “Even for Covid, we have a drug called viral med; why can’t they (government) try it on some of the severely-ill patients instead of letting them die?”
He adds: “We are willing to have our remedies tested and verified.”
He, however, warns people should be aware of general claims, like what has been witnessed with ginger, lemon and garlic as a cure for Covid-19. These are just supplements to boost one’s immunity and are not traditional medicines. They are even not specific to Covid,” he explains. “Even as you take them as supplements, you should ask yourself; what are you supplementing?”
Inyangala says since most of these herbalists do not document their work – like it is done for clinical trials – the board is keen not to encourage particular claims.
“We try so much not to certify their products for particular illnesses. We just say, ‘it relieves symptoms associated with cold, flu or any ailment’,” he says.
This gap in law is also what some herbalists use. As Inyangala explains, the board will only go after a herbalist who issues specific claims. For example, that their drug has the ability to treat a particular disease within a certain period of time as this insinuates scientific studies, which the regulator should be aware of.
Unfortunately, most herbalists are not willing to submit their medicines for efficacy and safety tests. Some are guarding their recipes, while others do not have the finances to go through the whole process.
“We have cases of people who have come into the country and sweet-talked some of the herbalists only for their formulations to be used elsewhere. It is no surprise some guard their herbs jealously,” says Inyangala.
Apart from offering alternative solutions to illnesses, herbalists, according to the study, may be the solution to the doctor and population ratio. The study puts the ratio of herbalists to population in the country at 1:833 in urban areas and 1:378 in the rural areas as doctor to population ratio stands at 1:16,000 from the recommended 1:300 by the WHO.
“It is also estimated that the number of traditional practitioners in Tanzania is between 30,000 and 40,000 in comparison to about 600 medical doctors,” reads the study.
Herbalists can also be the answer to the increasing resistance of some drugs, like antibiotics, as the study notes.
“Tropical diseases are on the rise in Kenya. Moreover, the number of cases of drug resistance is also increasing, which is bound to put a strain on the available resources,” it reads.
Maina says lack of knowledge by people has led to them to assume or confuse seers, diviners and spiritualists for herbalists.
“Those people who say they will return your wife who moved out are not herbalists. People cannot differentiate between a herbalist and a witch-doctor,” he says.
The study led by Daniel Gakuya from UoN’s Department of Clinical Studies notes that the field of traditional medicine is infiltrated with quacks. This is because Kenya is yet to finalise the National Policy on the Regulation of Traditional Medicine.
“Practice should be restricted to ensure that only genuine practitioners can operate,” Gakuya said.