Many Kenyans have for donkey years relied on traditional healers among them witch-doctors, intercessors and herbalists for treatment of disorders and diseases despite the existence of modern medicine, drugs, specialists and all.
It is common to come across posters plastered on electric posts, walls or nailed on trees advertising their services. The services listed include; reclaiming lost vitality, casting out demons, glueing up unfaithful spouses, treating cancer and diabetes besides the right antidote for ‘wasiwasi kazini’ (workplace anxiety).
The above ‘services’ are so common in lower Eastern counties like Kitui and Makueni. As a result, the Makueni health department decided to incorporate traditional healers with modern medicine. This has seen a marked increase in the number of patients being referred from witchdoctors who receive clients with ailments like cancer, diabetes, depression and TB, which are not related to spiritual or evil causations.
Community Health Volunteers (CHVs) have been instrumental in visiting the places where traditional healers operate from to educate their clients on the need to seek modern treatment.
Mr Stanylous Kioko Mulatya, a CHV in Makueni County, often visits the homes of known waganga and herbalists to “trace in their records what type of clients they had received”.
He said there are prayer places where people seeking treatment for Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) like diabetes and cancer seek divine intervention.
A witch-doctor like Jacinta Kanini’s place is one port of call for Mr Mulatya. One the day of our visit, Ms Kanini, a 22-year veteran, had clients at her base on the outskirts of Kilala Market on the Wote-Machakos road.
She was among others, conferring wealth, sorting out family disputes, treating the bewitched and offering good luck to her clients. And one of her core competencies is “keeping away thieves” from one’s homestead so that nobody can steal from it.
“For diseases like cancer, tuberculosis and diabetes, I have been given a referral book,” she says. She uses the book to record a client’s particulars and other pertinent details, including symptoms and history of the disease.
Ms Kanini conducts oral examinations to understand whether an ailment is caused by witchcraft to warrant traditional healing or requires contemporary medicine.
“If it needs medical attention, I do an immediate referral to Makueni County Referral Hospital through CHVs,” she discloses, showing us the booklet with hundreds of receipts.
To confirm the nature of our visits, Ms Kanini reaches for her cure kit and blows a powder-like substance towards us before intoning; “I have examined and found you are good people, on a good cause.”
Still in Wote town is Ms Maria Willy, who has been operating near River Kaiti for 23 years.
Ms Maria has a client in need of reducing his excessive drinking, but not to the point of quitting frothy liquids altogether.
She swirls a beaded basket around his waist, casts away drinking spirits while placing a shell tied with a knotted thread before him. She makes seven knots and unties them, signifying the end of his woes before the man leaves.
Other client needs include expanding a business, finding fame and hunting down witches.
“My scope of treatment is well-defined,” says Ms Maria. “I can’t practice what I can’t treat, and that is why I direct some clients to the hospital. Like those who turn up after defaulting on medicine and becoming hopeless I counsel and refer them back to doctors to continue with treatment,” she says. She, too, is armed with a booklet for referrals.
Both Ms Kanini and Ms Maria inherited their crafts from their blood relatives.
Besides witch-doctors, some Kenyans also prefer herbalists, believing they too heal the sick and they had such powers long before the advent of modern medicine through colonialism at the turn of the 20th century.
‘Dr Wendo Usu (Gerald Kinyumbu) is a 75-year-old resident of Kaumoni, Makueni County. He fully embraces herbal extractions, also known as pharmacotherapy.
Dr Wendo Usu swears by his training on a wide range of local herbs, which he affirms are acceptable in modern pharmacology.
“I don’t advertise myself,” he explains, “but people who are healed spread my gospel. I attend to people with low libido, cancer and arthritis among others”.
His guide book titled Miti ya Dawa Ukambani, has a variety of medicinal herbs, such as plants that grow wild around forested and mountainous parts of Chyullu hills and Mbooni.
“For cancer, we treat it after mixing a variety of herbs like Kinyeelia (Tragia brevipes), Muema nzou (Boscia coriascea), Masonzoia (Sphaeranthus bullatus), Kiatine (Kigelia Africana) and Munzee, botanically known as Bidens Pilosa,” explains the herbalist who uses leaves, bark and roots for preparing concoctions.
Low libido, he adds, is a dangerous shaker of many marriages, but Dr Wendo Usu claims to offer couples ‘bedroom therapy’ to treat sexual dysfunction using locally-available foods and herbs. He mixes the roots of Acacia Nilotica, Fagaropsis Herderbrandtii, Strychnos Spinosa and Carissa Edulis with the roots of Moringa oleifera and Zanthoxylum Chalybeum (leaves).
But Wendo Usu admits, he too, has limits and can’t wait for a patient to die on his hands, especially NCDs like cancer.
“When a cancer patient returns without changes, I immediately mobilise for specialised treatment at the Makueni County Referral Hospital. You can’t keep patients who are not responsive to traditional herbs,” he says.
Some cancer cases, according to him, exhibit symptoms of arthritis with patients complaining of pain and fever.
“If you treat it as cancer and no changes then we refer,” he says.
Dr Wendo Usu, however, warns that ignorance about herbal medicine has seen unprecedented uprooting of medicinal plants, thus diminishing their availability in areas like forested hills.
Just like herbalists, spiritual healers have not been left behind. Some have even built prayer rooms for patients.
One of them is Ms Catherine Kanini, from Kyumu village, Kilala within Kaiti Constituency where she offers spiritual therapy.
“I pray for my patients,” she says. “Through God’s intervention, I can tell if a certain disease is for medical care or spiritual care and at that point, I make a decision for referral.”
Efforts to move patients from the care of witch-doctors, traditional healers and herbalists has witnessed more people seeking health care services especially at the Makueni Cancer and Treatment Unit.
Dr Gavin Orangi, the Makueni County Cancer Coordinator, says the unit is currently attending to over 400 patients with the highest morbidity being cancer of breasts, cervix, prostate and liver.
“There is a lot of sensitisation through various stakeholders although most of the patients come at stage 4,” he says. “This gives us little leeway in terms of prognosis,” explains Dr Orangi.
According to him, male patient survival rate has increased.
“There is spill-over effect of patients coming from witch-doctors, intercessors among other traditional means since those patients appear at late stages to seek treatment and this affects the survival rate,” he says. “The health promotion department has been key in reaching out to those practicing such so that they don’t hold critical cases”.
In the chemotherapy room, we meet Mr Antony Munyao, 35, and Ms Christine Mutua, 45, both cancer patients.
Mr Munyao, a sarcoma patient from the neighbouring Machakos County, had his leg amputated while Ms Mutua, suffers from breast cancer.
Both were advised by friends and relatives to seek alternative treatments but they ignored and today, Mr Munyao is at the last stage of administering chemo and reasons that since sickness is a normal part life and it is better to seek medical attention in a hospital.
Ms Mutua is also hopeful.
“I thank God I didn’t follow those who wanted me to start from witch-doctors. maybe I wouldn’t be in this good state if I followed them,” she says.
Ms Marrieta Muthiani, an oncology nurse, says health professionals work closely with CHVs and social workers “to trace back defaulters. The danger of default is that disease advances faster.”
Makueni County Health Chief Officer, Dr Patrick Musyoki, believes the trend of seeking for traditional African medicine is not ending any time soon and hence the reason the county government view practitioners as ‘partners’.
As a result, they have been cajoling them to become part of community health volunteers.
“Many traditional birth attendants have been transformed and we believe these traditional healers too are going to be transformed,” Dr Musyoki says.
Dr Musyoki adds that the country has been holding “forums with witch doctors on how to identify patients with various illnesses like depression and refer them to us for specialized treatment. We also visit herbalists and educate them on disease symptoms like TB so that they don’t stay with patients in their homes.”
The county government has also been using health champions like Koki Mutua, who survived the removal of her cervix after suffering cervical cancer in 2000. Mutua advocates for safe procedures through educating fellow women in church gatherings.
Besides Makueni, the other county incorporating a similar method is Kilifi where traditional healers get more clients than hospitals, according to Dr Symon Kariuki, the head of Neurosciences at the Kemri-Welcome Trust in Kilifi. Most epilepsy patients seek help from herbalists and traditional healers but Dr Kariuki noted that perceptions only began changing when traditional healers were roped in to sensitize residents on the need to visit health facilities for certain ailments.