What you need to know:
- Prof Julius Wanjohi Mwangi, a herbalist and the head of the Department of Traditional Medicine at the University of Nairobi’s Faculty of Pharmacy, agrees with Ms Kemunto, saying that “the easiest way to pick out a quack herbalist from the pack is whether or not they are flamboyant in their behaviour”.
- All pharmacists, says Prof Mwangi, are sufficiently knowledgeable in traditional medicine because it is a mandatory subject in all their undergraduate trainings in most universities around the world.
- Countries with focused leaderships like Tanzania and Uganda quickly enacted laws to regulate the sector to protect their citizens, but that did not happen in Kenya.
In January this year, Ms Asha Mbogori was diagnosed with breast cancer at Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH).
Doctors said the cancer was in its first stage, and that to defeat it, they had to remove the entire breast. After surgery, they added, Ms Mbogori would go through a combination of radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
They were optimistic that the single mother of three had a 70 per cent chance of recovering.
The complete treatment would take six months and set her back by less than half a million. With proper management of any health issues that side effects of the treatments might bring, doctors told her she could resume her normal life within a year.
They then scheduled her for surgery in two weeks, but Ms Mbogori never went back to KNH, thanks to an advertisement she saw on a local national television channel on the evening of her diagnosis.
“I thought a miracle had delivered itself to me when I saw the advert on TV. The advertiser claimed to treat breast cancer within two months using herbs. I was keen to avoid surgery by all means. And since the alternative, non-surgical treatment seemed too attractive, I contacted the man the following day.”
FROM BAD TO WORSE
Ten months later and Sh500,000 poorer, Ms Mbogori’s condition had gone from bad to worse. The cancer has spread in her body.
“Now I’m frustrated and convinced I’m dying,” she says. “I have been conned of my money and my life. Can you tell me where to seek redress? Because, before I die, I want action taken against the herbalist, who no longer wants to see me. My lawyer cannot assist me because the herbalist denies ever seeing or attending to me at his clinic. He keeps no records of my visits and claims that the documents I have are forgeries.”
To get the answers that Ms Mbogori couldn’t, DN2 contacted Ms Lydia Kemunto Matoke, chairperson of the Herbalists Society of Kenya (HSK), who asked us to travel to Nakuru, where she runs the Hope Natural Healthcare Centre.
But Ms Mbogori, who hails from Meru, was too unwell and broke to travel to Nakuru, and so Ms Kemunto travelled to Nairobi to meet her.
The herbalist chose to meet the patient in private, but the results of the meeting were not encouraging to Ms Mbogori.
Ms Kemunto informed the patient that neither she nor HSK could help her seek any redress from the impostor herbalist because there was no law to regulate the practice of herbal medicine in the country.
“There is nothing much HSK can do about [Ms Mbogori’s] case,” said Ms Kemunto. “Her latest X-ray picture shows that the disease is so advanced and spread out that I agree with doctors that she has little chance. For the last one year, the patient has been seeing a crook who pretends to be an herbalist. We need a law to deal with such villains immediately before more Kenyans are killed by unscrupulous crooks masquerading as herbalists.”
NO LEGAL ACTION
Three days after meeting Ms Kemunto, Ms Mbogori succumbed to the cancer. Asked whether there was a way the deceased’s relatives could take legal action on the herbalist, Ms Kemunto said: “Quacks who pretend to be herbalists do not keep any records of their patients.
They may pretend to do so in front of the patient but later they erase any trace of ever seeing or treating anyone.”
In the absence of a clear law, Ms Kemunto says, HSK has been attempting to self-regulate the sector without success.
“We are just a welfare society. We only care for the wellbeing of our members. Unfortunately, we do not have the capacity to develop or enforce any regulations within the sector.”
The quacks, she says, sell nothing but pain killers dissolved in coloured water to chronically sick people.
Prof Julius Wanjohi Mwangi, a herbalist and the head of the Department of Traditional Medicine at the University of Nairobi’s Faculty of Pharmacy, agrees with Ms Kemunto, saying that “the easiest way to pick out a quack herbalist from the pack is whether or not they are flamboyant in their behaviour”.
“Anyone who advertises their practice in the media is not a true herbalist. This is because the rigors of the profession are very challenging. My experience, which spans 40 years, is so humbling that we pray that fewer of them come our way.
“In nearly all cases, patients seek herbal remedies when all else has failed. Therefore they bring to us the sorriest of all cases. Thank God our remedies are more affordable than conventional medicines because they are mainly in their rawest forms and nearly every patient can afford them.
“It is very depressing to a herbalist if a poor Kenyan spends more than Sh500,000 on herbs. It is straightforward robbery.”
Prof Mwangi is the former chairman of the department of pharmacy at the university and a former board member of the Pharmacists and Poisons Board, the government’s arm that regulates the sale of medicines in Kenya.
The board also prohibits conventional medical experts from advertising themselves and their professions to the public.
But why doesn’t the board stop herbalists from advertising?
Prof Mwangi says more than a decade ago when he was a board member, he was among the directors who banned such advertisements. However, the herbalists petitioned the ban in court and won.
But the government, in conjunction with stakeholders in the traditional medicine sub-sector, have developed a draft Bill—The Traditional Health Practitioners Bill 2014—that is yet to go through its first reading in Parliament.
To find out how herbalists would want to be regulated by this law, we sampled a few prominent “teleherbalists”.
At Olive Herbal, we met Mr Samuel Kabugua. His clinic is situated on the first floor of the former OTC building, and there we found a stethoscope, a white dustcoat hanging at its place, a diagnosis bed there and a blood pressure hand band on his desk.
The office has shelves lined with many volumes of medical books for reference. During the interview, he kept on referring to the books for this or that, careful not to misquote or be misquoted.
Mr Kabugua holds a diploma in herbal medicine from a Chinese college after what he calls apprentice training at Abha Light College on Ngong Road, Nairobi.
He also has no kind words for pretenders in the industry. “We are doing noble work for our people. We do not say we are better than conventional medicine practitioners, and neither can they dismiss our contribution in health care provision. However, we seem to have very many bad apples in our basket. People who claim to fully treat diseases are worse than murderers, they should be arrested.”
Herbalists at Makini Herbal Clinic in Ngara referred us to Mr Willis Wanjala at their Nairobi West branch, who agreed that his trade had been invaded by many quacks, and as such, he was thinking of diversifying into other practices of complementary medicine.
Mr Wanjala also blamed all types of media for the increase of quacks in herbal medicine practice.
“The average Kenyan does not know the difference between a documentary, a supplement and a factual feature story. Kenyans trust the mainstream media more than any other public or private agent in the country. But I think media houses are taking that for granted.
“The media industry should reject adverts that mislead the population. They have the money and should therefore hire professionals to vet adverts before they run them,” Mr Wanjala, a former advertising executive with the Nation Media Group, said.
But whether or not Kenya’s urban centres are teeming with pretenders, self-seekers or outright conmen and tricksters in the traditional medicine sub-sector, Prof Mwangi maintains that there are many genuine, conventionally trained herbalists in the country who earn an honest penny.
All pharmacists, says Prof Mwangi, are sufficiently knowledgeable in traditional medicine because it is a mandatory subject in all their undergraduate trainings in most universities around the world.
“I have taught traditional medicine to thousands of pharmacists at the diploma, undergraduate, masters and PhD levels. But few of them have taken interest in practising it because of the stigma that goes with it. In the past, it was degrading to claim to be an herbalist. Until the World Health Organisation officially recognised the practice in 2002, people were frowning at me whenever I said I was a herbalist.
“Few Kenyans believe I am a true professor because quacks have been conferring themselves titles they do not deserve. Therefore, before I became a professor, my title as ‘Dr Mwangi the Herbalist’ was nothing different from the other crook outside there, conning people. Few of my students have the spine to walk around with that vilification.”
In the jargon of his trade, Prof Mwangi is a specialist in pharmacognosy, the practice of extracting medicines from plants. He has patented more than half a dozen herbal medicines since 1979.
“At the onset of colonisation, all herbalists were lumped together with witchdoctors. Anyone who sought their services was seen as a backward person who was involved in witchcraft. Thus herbalists and their practice went underground.”
This belief went to the heads of elitist Kenyans, especially lawmakers, who were busy getting Westernised.
Laws were therefore made excluding herbalists. It did not change until at the start of this millennium, when the WHO officially recognised the role played by traditional medical practitioners in Africa.
Herbalists started crawling out of the woodwork, and with them came quacks.
Countries with focused leaderships like Tanzania and Uganda quickly enacted laws to regulate the sector to protect their citizens, but that did not happen in Kenya.