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Traditional Healing and Modern Medicine Join Forces in Kenya - 2004-06-18


In Kenya, the government is looking at ways to bring some practices used in traditional medicine into mainstream healthcare. Health officials say the goal is to combine mainstream and traditional healing to provide better health care for people across the country. VOA's Patricia Nunan has more from Nairobi.

The home of Michael Nzau, a traditional healer, is in a narrow lane of a slum in the Kibera district outside Nairobi. The tiny, two-room mud house has no electricity, but Mr. Nzau says he doesn't need it to heal the sick.

He says the medicine he gives is much better than what his patients can get in a hospital. My patients, he says, have been in hospitals taking medicine for two to three years without being cured. But when they come to me, he says, I cure them between one and two months.

The son and grandson of traditional healers, Mr. Nzau says the medicines he makes from herbs and trees cure diseases such as tuberculosis, asthma and malaria. He says he treats at least 20 patients a week.

Traditional healers, like Mr. Nzau, are receiving increased attention in Kenya. Earlier this week, the health ministry announced it was drafting legislation to introduce traditional cures in health clinics around the country.

Already, the government offers licenses to healers from China and India to open traditional health-care practices, since they come from countries with strong regulatory systems in place. Dr. Mboyo Okeye, the head of the Department of Standards at the ministry of health, says the government is now working on ways to regulate Kenyan traditional medicine.

"The more we discuss about traditional medicine with the traditional medical practitioners, the more we learn many new things and the more even defining it becomes more difficult," he says. "By the time you bring in law, you must be very, very clear what you want regulated."

According to the U.S. State Department, life expectancy is just 45 years in Kenya, a country where one-half of the population of 32 million live below the poverty line. That makes modern, Western-style medicine a luxury that few can afford.

The role of traditional healers has been dismissed by some in Kenya's medical establishment as witchcraft.

But others say traditional healers approach medicine from a perspective much closer to village life and talking to patients about themselves is an important part of treatment. Professor A.B.C. Ayayo is an anthropologist from the Tropical Institute of Community Health and Development in Nairobi.

"The actual drug would now be administered for the treatment -- after he has learned a lot of stories, knows a lot of stories -- the life history," he explains. "Because who was there, we want to know whether that person, did he also eat? Who passed nearby? We want to know whether that person who passed by may mysteriously give something to be eaten. Maybe, where is your mother married from, came from? They want to find out the history, whether this was an inherited disease. So if they know the history of where you mother comes from, they may know that family has got such a disease."

The World Bank is also encouraging the government to allow a greater role for traditional medicine in Kenya, because of the benefits it offers, not only for health care but even the country's ecology and agriculture.

Traditional healers are often farmers, and World Bank consultant John Lambert says they place particular importance on certain plants and the environment in which they grow.

"They will be able to say, 'Hey look, we use this plant on a regular basis.' And we're able to say, 'If you're able to use it on a regular basis, and the supply is getting less and less, we can hopefully help you identify a sustainable harvesting process.' If they've been part of it, they're much more likely to accept it, because their knowledge, their input has been used to their advantage," Mr. Lambert adds.

Dr. Obeye from the ministry of health points out that traditional healers may also play a role in the prevention of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

"When somebody is dying of HIV/AIDS, once they've been discharged from the hospitals and they go back to their community, the person closest to them, and the person who really looks after them in those last days is a traditional medical practitioner," he explains. "So there has to be a way by which we can improve their skills and we can use them to be able to communicate about what HIV/AIDS is all about and HIV/AIDS is something that's preventable."

He says it will probably take another year before the bill will be ready to go before parliament, but even without special legislation, traditional medicine in Kenya is thriving.

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