Vol. VIII, No. 1, 1995

Traditional Healing in Modern East Africa

by Christie Eastman

Christie Flanders Eastman, native to Springfield, MO, and husband Trent lived on Marsabit Mountain in North Kenya from 1991 to 1994. They were volunteers with Food for the Hungry International, a community relief and development organization. In this essay, readers may be reminded of traditional healing practice in the Ozarks, and some of its encounters with modernity.

In January, 1995, Trent Eastman will become Deputy Country Director of FHl Bangladesh. Christie will continue volunteer work and write a book about her experiences in Africa, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh.

Night falls just moments after the equatorial sun drops down behind Marsabit mountain. Then fog descends and sneaks through the forested contours of the mountain's rounded peaks, isolating the many scattered villages. On the south, in the Borana tribal community of Badassa, low gentle melodies rise as herds of cattle move through the blackness; herdsmen are singing praises to their cattle, "You have rich, white milk and strong, curved horns...." The herds push on proudly as they make their final way home for the night. Just five miles west, young Samburu and Rendille warriors are dancing and singing their own ritual songs, punctuating the stillness of the night with rhythmic calls and drumming. Nights on Marsabit mountain help restore memories of the time when life was sweet, lived in the open desert, food plentiful and people strong, when tradition had meaning and was life-giving.

No greater life-giving traditions can be found in the Borana and Samburu cultures, nor in the cultures of the many other tribes that have settled on Marsabit mountain, than the traditions that make up their healing arts. Medicinal herbs, bone setting, first aid, midwifery, and other health and healing arts are important traditions to these semi-nomadic communities. They are traditions people struggle to preserve and to improve upon as winds of change sweep Africa today. Deforestation and desertification of their ancestral lands, government pressure, and recurrent droughts have caused previously desert nomads to forsake their traditional lives and settle on the mountain. Switching to settled life has radically changed the fabric of existence. It challenges the most precious aspects of tribal culture, including traditional healing.

Life on Marsabit Mountain, a volcanic island rising amidst the surrounding desert, provides these new settlers with access to modern medicine through a government hospital and a few dispensaries. Still most people continue to use traditional techniques when giving birth, getting a broken bone repaired, or finding a remedy to heal an infirm family member. Traditional healers are highly respected community experts; their techniques have evolved from centuries of trial and error, and have been refined through generations of family apprenticeship. As long as people can remember, such treatments have been effective. Modern health care, by contrast, is expensive and may involve an impersonality with which few are yet comfortable. Community healers diagnose familiar illnesses at least, harvest the necessary herbs or animal extracts, determine dosages, and administer appropriate treatment for such ailments. Being the "general practitioners" in their own clans, the health of patients was critical to them both from a personal and professional point of view. If their treatments didn't work, they might lose not only their reputations and consequently their purpose in life, they might lose a family member as well.

Borana girls: tomorrow's community healers.
Trent Eastman photos.


Common illnesses called for common remedies proven effective over the years. For fever, diarrhea, toothaches, sore throats, sinus problems, intestinal worms, respiratory problems, earaches, skin conditions, menstrual problems, infertility, broken bones, wounds, burns, etc., there was a traditional treatment that people believed in. Out in the desert medicines were made from familiar and locally available ingredients such as tree bark, sap, leaves, roots, plant stems, flowers, minerals, and various animal products.

The more densely populated mountain environment that these tribes now live in causes exposure to unfamiliar illnesses, and many of the herbs available in the desert aren't found on the mountain. Other differences such as diet and climate have weakened people and made healing more difficult. Traditional healers find themselves less effective in their work, and they are becoming frustrated by repeated failures. However, they continue practicing because many people cannot afford modern medical care.

Mama Gumato lives in Badassa and is one among many traditional health workers in the community. She and her husband, Abudo, moved to Badassa about ten years ago when the government was giving away free land to settlers. Of six babies born to her, all but one survived and have grown up to be important members of the greater Marsabit community. Through the repeated devastating droughts that have hit Marsabit, Abudo persevered to keep his children in school by selling what few animals he had to pay school fees so that they would have the opportunity to move out of the village and into a more secure life in modern Africa. Though their children have moved to town, Mama Gumato and Abudo continue to live as they always have in their mud and grass hut, herding animals and growing crops on their 1/4 acre plot of land. They are strong, creative people, and their neighbors depend on them for advice when times get tough: how to prepare for a drought, how to find good pasture, what to do if a pregnancy or birth goes wrong, what herbs to use when a family member is sick, how to care for a wound.

Mama Gumato is the most respected midwife (or traditional birth attendant) in the Badassa area, and is also known for her skills with herbal medicine. Like other traditional birth attendants in Marsabit, she delivers babies at the home of the mother and is paid through traditional gifts that the family of the newborn brings to her following a successful birth. Unlike all other birth attendants, though, Mama Gumato knows what to do when things go wrong during a birth. Her massage and manipulation techniques can adjust the position of a baby so that it can be born head first, and her herbal formulas can be used to assist the placenta to come out or reduce the pain experienced by the mother during childbirth.

Mama Gumato takes care to keep on hand remedies for everyday health problems so that when something arises in her village she is already prepared. For instance, when she slaughters a goat, before clearing the intestines of their contents (intestines, or "matumbo," are a delicacy) she carefully squeezes the first juices from the stomach into a jar to be used for the next neighbor who comes to her with an upset stomach. These juices are said to work like Pepto Bismol to soothe a sour stomach and relieve nausea. But Mama Gumato has recently encountered more complex illnesses that such remedies do not treat, including her own seasonal asthma and her daughter's persistent headaches. She is eager to learn more about the new illnesses and how the local mountain herbs can be used to treat them.

Mama Gumato and her husband, Abudo, outside their house.


Over the past few years, Mama Gumato and other healers from the Borana and Samburu communities on Marsabit mountain have actively sought ways to apply their traditions of healing to the present health care crisis. With the help of Food for the Hungry International (FHI), a non-government community development organization in Marsabit, the healers and fellow villagers gathered to assess community health priorities as well as traditional health practices. Gathering under a tree in their village, they used simple charts and graphs made of sticks, mud, corn cobs, leaves, animal droppings, etc., with which to count and rank morbidity and mortality associated with certain illnesses in their communities. How were things going? What needed work? They concluded that more needed to be learned, about how to both prevent and cure disease. In particular, they needed to learn how to use local herbs to treat unfamiliar maladies. These groups proceeded to meet regularly with FHI health staff, to learn from modem medical understanding of disease. Individual practitioners intend to share their experiences with herbs. For scientific analysis and verification of the healing properties of herbs, FHI contacted the director of Kenya Medical Research Institute's Traditional Medicines Department (KEMRI) for assistance. Dr. Kofi, the Nigerian-born department director, was delighted at the prospect of research in Marsabit, a far-off place in the Kenyan countryside. He and his team of botanical experts study herbs provided by traditional healers throughout Kenya. They determine the plant families that each herb belongs to, and then investigate their probable medicinal properties. Many of the herbs used by traditional healers in Kenya have chemical properties similar to those in pharmaceutical drugs. Such herbs can be used effectively for the treatment of disease, and are medicines that local people can acquire and administer themselves. Although the KEMRI experts have not yet visited Marsabit, they are scheduled to do so this year. They will open the door to new confidence on the part of the traditional healers, and will point them in the right direction when practicing their ancient art in their more modern environs.

Will the future see women like Mama Gumato continuing to provide healing services to Marsabit communities as they have for countless generations? Or will the art of traditional healing die out, like so many other traditions as Africa moves more and more into the stream of global modernization? It is impossible to know just how Marsabit will change; or if traditional medicines will continue to be part of the fabric of village life very far into the future. But for this generation, local healers are doing all they can to bridge the "healing gap" between their days as nomads and their new life in settlements on Marsabit mountain. As they tap into modern resources available to them through organizations like FHI and KEMRI, and as they persevere in caring for their communities' health, they will decide the future of their art as long as they are alive. When they're gone, it will be up to their apprentices to determine whether traditional medicine will continue among the Borana and Samburu people of north Kenya.

Samburu women ranking their communities' health priorities with a stick, rock, and dung chart.

Samburu women ranking their communities' health priorities with a stick, rock, and dung chart. Samburu ( Rendille ) traditional birth attendant (left). She is a participant in an FHI midwife traning program.


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