Kenya: Fear of 'Covid-19 in Hospitals' Drives Locals to Unconventional Treatment

30 November 2020

Villagers in parts of Western Kenya are embracing unconventional treatment for fear of "contracting Covid-19 in hospitals".

In one case, locals are taking to traditional rituals to battle mumps, a contagious and deadly viral infection.

Villagers suffering from the disease are involved in a somewhat bizarre ritual, which requires a patient to collect firewood and tie it in a neat bundle and then walk to a red hot poker tree, locally known as Omurembe, to drive away the disease.

A patient is supposed to wake up early in the morning and head to where the Omurembe tree is located, while carrying the bundle of firewood on the head.

They are then supposed to mutter some incantation as they move around the tree.

Mr Joseck Okwako, 98, from Khungema Village in Matawa sub-location, Mumias West Sub-County, explains: "The patient wakes up very early in the morning before anyone else and, with a small bundle of firewood tied together, goes round the tree three times singing Tsindaindai kalukha khumurembe (Mumps go back to the Red Poker Tree)."

He says that after the song, the patient drops the bundle of firewood and walks straight home without speaking to anyone or looking back.

"The patient makes a recovery after three days," claimed Mr Okwako, smiling wryly.

Mr Asman Okilo from Eburangas Village, who suffered from the disease, says he followed the instructions he was given by elders and visited the tree very early in the morning to perform the prescribed ritual and got healed after three days.

He reiterated that people suffering from mumps visit the tree and run around it three times. They then pluck one of its leaves, which they roast and use to massage the affected area. The cure, allegedly, takes about two days.

"It is true the tree is a cure for mumps. I had used medication from hospital without any success. But an elder advised me to seek treatment from the Omurembe tree and, true to his words, I got healed," said Mr Okilo.

He said some of the complications he suffered included swelling of salivary glands that turned out to be very painful, and partial loss of hearing.

Medics' warning

But medics have a different opinion on the matter, warning villagers about endangering their lives by engaging in traditional rituals in the hope of finding a cure.

Dr Donald Musi of the Yatta Plateau Hospitals dismissed the myth surrounding the Omurembe tree as speculative and misleading.

"Mumps lacks special treatment, but its management is focused on relieving symptoms until the body's immune system fights off the infection," Dr Musi explained.

The medic says some of the symptoms associated with mumps are high fever that can rise to 39 degrees Celcius and swelling of salivary glands for more than three weeks.

"The glands may not swell at once but, more commonly, they swell and become painful periodically. The patient is likely to pass the mumps to another person he or she comes into contact with," cautions the doctor.

He says mumps is a viral infection that does not respond to antibiotics and other medications but the patient can be assisted to remain comfortable while sick.

He points out that patients need bed rest, taking pain relievers, and using ice packs on swollen glands plus drinking plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration as some of the basic remedies to help the patient.

According to Dr Musi, people who suffer from mumps cannot contract the disease a second time because the virus protects them against getting infected again.

The medic warns that if not contained properly, mumps can affect other areas like the brain and reproductive organs.

He says that while men can get inflammation of the testicles due to mumps, which can lead to sterility, women infected with mumps face the risk of swelling of the ovaries.

"If a woman contracts mumps during pregnancy, she has a higher risk of experiencing a miscarriage," he warns.

To prevent the risk of getting infected with mumps, Dr Musi advises mothers to take infants for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine which is given between the ages of 15 months and between four and six years.

Pressure on land

Adults who work in high-risk environments like schools and hospitals are urged to get vaccinated against mumps.

The growing pressure on land has seen the tree become an endangered species due to the clearing of fallow land and vegetation for farming activities.

Mr Okwako said that the tree is revered in communities in Western region due to its magical healing powers.

Besides "healing" of the mumps, Mr Okwako says the tree is also used to settle disputes in the village by asking people who are suspected of committing certain misdemeanors to swear while standing next to the tree.

"If the person lies when swearing, he will bear the wrath or face a curse, which could see him fall sick and have a misfortune befall him," said Mr Okwako.

Despite the warning from medics, those afflicted with the disease continue trooping to the Omurembe tree, found in bushes near homes, to take part in the traditional ritual believed to cure symptoms associated with the disease.

Medics say the contagious disease is caused by a virus that passes from one person to another through saliva, nasal secretions and close personal contact.

The condition primarily affects the salivary glands which are responsible for producing saliva.

Symptoms of mumps include swelling of salivary glands located near the ears which causes the cheeks to puff out. The symptoms usually appear within two weeks of exposure to the virus.

The Omurembe tree is popular among the Luhya community and has a rich history in most parts of the Western region.

"In ancient times, one was warned never to swear falsely on Omurembe tree or else death would strike him or her," said elder Okwako.

The tree is never used as firewood because locals believe that could lead to misfortunes befalling the family.

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