Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Loliondo sad affair continues apace

Sunday Nation 03 April 2011

In northern Tanzania, at a place called Loliondo, a retired priest has allegedly been churning out a ‘‘miracle cure’’ for all chronic illnesses known to man.

The sick, gawkers and tourists have been flocking to the site to see and drink the greenish concoction touted as a panacea.

In my opinion, the concoction he is dispensing would more accurately be described as a “miracle killer”, given that the only miracle in this case is that fewer people are dying after ingesting the poisonous soup.

In Kenyan, and African medical practice, the Loliondo phenomenon is not unique. Claims of ‘‘miracle cure’’ are found all over the continent, with ardent followers swearing by some concoction or other as a cure for diabetes, HIV, cancer, hypertension and mental illness.

Religious leaders have not been left behind, either. They promise exorcism of the “demons” responsible for these illnesses, and all they ask for in return is a small “contribution” to support the “ministry”.

Some get prime airtime on national TV, parading people they claim have terminal illnesses and then performing some religious rituals for them in order to effect “cure”.

Most of these people, believing they are cured, stop taking regular medications and end up dead or suffering from complications soon thereafter.

A walkabout in any urban area in Kenya will leave one in no doubt whatsoever of the clout these “waganga kutoka Tanzania” (Tanzanian healers) wield over the Kenyan psyche.

Even in areas with clear “No Posters” signs, these “waganga” have plastered posters on lampposts and walls, proclaiming their powers to heal all problems of mankind, including problems with relationships, school or work.

Any thinking person knows that no such cure exists, but the practice has no shortage of clients.

Everyone shares a level of responsibility for this. Despite numerous warnings from the medical fraternity about the dangers of ingesting untested substances in the hope of cure, many people continue to queue outside the hovels housing these “waganga”.

Health professionals, on the other hand, have perpetuated this business by developing a false dichotomy between “conventional” and “traditional” medicine.

Human illnesses do not recognise cures as being “traditional” or “conventional”. They only respond to cures that work.

Insisting that we must respect “traditional” practitioners just because we do not understand what they do is in fact harmful in a majority of the cases.

Since nobody has tested whatever they dispense with any scientific rigour, no self-respecting health worker would refer a client to them, or even work side-by-side with them in a formal setting.

Regulatory bodies must also accept that they have neglected their responsibility as far as protecting the health of citizens is concerned. Ideally, any substance that is marketed as a cure for any ailment must undergo rigorous testing to ensure that it is safe, and that it actually cures.

Asking people to take it on “faith” that the substance works results in far more harm than any postulated good. In Loliondo, dozens of people had to die before the Tanzanian government intervened.

And the intervention was really just an endorsement of the priest’s cure, asking him to help deal with the humanitarian crisis his popularity was causing.

Meanwhile, the sad affair continues apace, and dozens more are sure to die before any meaningful action is taken.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University’s school of medicine

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