19 February 2013

Uganda: Fake Traditional Healers Threatening African Medicine

Tucked away about 20 metres from the Kampala-Masaka highway at Busega is Kityo Herbal Research Project, a haven for those who want to rid themselves of dental cavities and halitosis (bad breath).

Tracing Kityo's clinic was no easy job as he was new in the area and unfamiliar to many. In fact, one motorcyclist said he had heard that a witch-doctor had invaded the area.

When I finally traced the place, the diminutive Dr Kityo, as he prefers to be called, donning black socks, khaki trousers and pale white shirt loosely hanging over the trousers, welcomed me. However, I was supposed to remove my shoes. I felt a bit of indignation as I looked at the floor dotted with ash, broom sticks and black seeds.

My stomach felt strange and my palms were clammy. Having the motorcyclist's view stamped on my mind, I was terrified. Of course, it's not really a fear of being in a shrine; it's the view of what happens there - faceless voices talking to me. My sense of security was screamingly absent.

Smoke and heat swirled around the room as I made my way in. A charcoal stove kept aglow all the time for easier melting of a few grammes of ghee, one of the ingredients Kityo employs. Inside were two youthful clients that had issues with their teeth. I watched their treatment.

Kityo grabbed a small black pot and cleaned it with a few broom sticks and water to remove any contamination from the last user. He then dropped herbs into the pot before adding a hot piece of charcoal and the ghee. He quickly crowned the pot brim with a circular woven lid with a little opening through which clients inhaled the odour.

The odour was choking. Throughout the procedure, coughing, spitting and squinting of teary eyes were highlights. The inhaling took 15-20 minutes until the fire died out. He uncovered the pot and using a pair of hooked metal, removed a tiny brown or pale white substance that had collected at the bottom.

"This is the dirt from your teeth," he told a client, urging her to go home and rest and call him later to confirm whether her teeth had healed. The client, with a happy face but bloodshot eyes from the piercing smoke, parted with Shs 50,000 and started chewing on a green apple she had carried along.

Kityo said he has been at this job for 10 years and his medication caters for all age groups.

"I learnt from my father who had over 30 years' experience and I am not willing to let it go because it will be a shame," he said.

Asked about the medicine he uses, he said he cannot disclose them, because there are many quacks that could adopt it and con people. On average, he receives 20 clients a day according to his visitors' book that every client must sign.

Kityo is among the authentic healers registered under National Council of Traditional Healers and Herbalists Association (NACOTHA). A traditional healer is defined by the Traditional Healers and Modern Practitioners Together against Aids (THETA), as one who is recognized by his community and uses native knowledge handed down from generation to generation either orally or spiritually to alleviate all forms of human suffering.

However, the recent wave of ritual murders, including child sacrifice, has prompted parliamentarians to ask government to enact a law regulating the activities and practices of traditional healers and herbalists. The only law governing the operation of traditional healers is the Witchcraft Act of 1964, which stipulates penalties against intended acts of harm.

Dr Gerald Mutungi, the commissioner for non-communicable diseases in the health ministry, said some organizations register and present as traditional healers when they are not and are deceiving and conning people through the media. To stop this, Mutungi says the ministry is collaborating with the police to crack down on fake healers.

As such, all traditional healers will have to surrender their licences for fresh registration. Dr Yahaya Sekagya, the director PROMETRA, a local NGO working with traditional healers, said many fake healers are present because there are no patent rights for traditional healers and so authentic knowledge is easily counterfeited.

He says many of the fakes have a tendency of resorting to witchcraft.

"These conmen claim to have the power to make people rich or even cure illnesses such as HIV/Aids and often advertise in newspapers so as to woo the gullible. After promising to make their victims rich, they take off with the clients' money," he said.

He, however, said traditional medicine is reliable because it is based on a holistic approach to life.

"Most Ugandans will resort to traditional medical practitioners for their health problems because of its cost effectiveness and local availability," Dr Karim Musaasizi, NACOTHA's general secretary, says.

Traditional healing is linked to wider belief systems and remains integral to the lives of most Ugandans. People consult traditional healers whether or not they can afford Western medical services.

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