Where traditional surgeons have kept life going

Julius Kimelkut and (right) Paul Kipkeitoi who are both traditional surgeons. Photos/SAMMY CHEBOI

What you need to know:

  • Some hospitals in Kerio Valley use them as consultants for their deft skills

When Julius Kimelkut consulted a traditional surgeon in Karel village 27 years ago, he was not sure he would survive the ordeal to mend his battered skull. He knew the surgeon did not use modern equipment.

Mr Kimelkut had suffered extensive head injuries after he was struck with a stone following a confrontation in March 1982.

But today after two operations performed by a traditional surgeon, the 58-year-old has no complaints.

Daily hazards

A resident of the rocky Kerio Valley region of Marakwet, Mr Kimelkut and his neighbours are confronted with daily hazards. The high cost and distant location of modern medical facilities means that for many people, traditional surgeons are their only hope.

According to elders and practising surgeons, the art of carrying out all sorts of surgery was traditionally acquired through the process of apprenticeship.

An elder who had the skill would recruit one of his sons or a chosen villager and teach him how to operate on the brain, internal organs, limbs and other body parts.

The apprentice would accompany the expert on his visits to treat his patients, learning from observation.

“This knowledge is for communal benefit but is bestowed upon a few individuals. It is sacred and passed on from generation to generation,” said Mzee William arap Longei, an elder, at Kachenyut village.

Paul Kipkeitoi, 60, is a traditional surgeon who learned brain surgery from Mzee Kiplelon. He says he has over 30 years of experience and can handle the most complex cases.

“Some people come to me after they have lived with an injury for as long as five years, and I’m able to help them,” he said.

A believer

He uses a knife made specially by a local blacksmith to cut through the skull to operate on the brain. And he understands neurological processes.

“You have to be sure about what you are doing when you operate on a human head. The complex blood vessels require extra care, lest you endanger the person’s life.,” he said.

William Turu, 47, says he is a believer in traditional surgeons, and he rarely visits the local missionary hospital.

“When I developed enlarged tonsils in 1979 and was in a lot of pain, I decided to have them removed by the village surgeon. Though it was a painful experience, I’ve not had a problem since,” he said.

Charges for a traditional operation depend on the complexity. Mr Kipkeitoi says he charges between Sh3,000 and Sh20,000.

And despite their unconventional procedures, Mr Kipkeitoi said, their skills are held in such high regard that some mainstream medical facilities engage them as consultants or refer patients to them, though such arrangements are informal.

Traditional surgeons are yet to be recognised under the law.

The ministry of Health and several non-governmental organisations organised a seminar in the region in 2006 to encourage the surgeons to improve the hygiene of the process.

Although the traditional surgeons have begun to sterlise their equipment, they still don’t wear wear basic hygienic clothing like surgical gowns and masks.

“I know a lot of procedural and hygienic aspects of our work are not in line with modernity, but the government needs to help us move with the times,” Mr Kipkeitoi said.

Dr Eleazar Kaguri, the district medical officer, is of the view that traditional surgeons should be incorporated into the mainstream medical community. But he said such a move would require revision of policy.

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