Humans have had to deal with the threat of snakebites as long as humans have existed. While deaths from snakebites are rare, the outcomes are so severe and the nature of the animal so mysterious, that humans have developed all sorts of ways of dealing with them.
Witchdoctors, or Mganga as they are known in East Africa, are the first line for snakebite treatment here. The Waganga are fairly useless for treating many serious health issues, but they have carved out a niche for themselves for a few public health problems.
Our survey in Western Kenya confirms that nearly 100% of people who have been bitten by a snake visit the Mganga, regardless of whether they visit a formal health facility or not.
I went and sat down with an established Mganga here in Kwale and he was gracious enough to answer all of my questions openly and (mostly) honestly.
Hello, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. Is English OK?
No, my English is not very good. Can we do this through a translator?
Of course. So, what happens when a patient comes in for treatment for a snakebite?
When the patient comes in, I first apply the “njiwe na njoka” (lit: snake stone). The stone sucks all the poison out of the wound. When you put it on the bite, it will stick. When the stone has absorbed all the poison, it will fall off.
What do you mean? Like it just sticks to the flesh without tying it?
Yes, if there is poison, the stone will stick to the body. When all the poison is gone, the stone will fall off. After it is done, I take the stone and wash it with milk several times and then use it again for the next patient.
What is the snake stone? Is it like a rock? I’ve seen people use charcoal in the villages. They tie it to the wound, it doesn’t appear to stick on its own.
No, this is different. This is a stone from the snake. The stone is in the skull of the snake, like that of a fish.
(Note: I did not know this, but some species of snakes have otoliths, like most fish. Snakes (and fish) are deaf in the traditional sense. The otolith is a piece of calcium which grows as the animal ages and sit on top of a bed of nerves. When there are vibrations, the otolith vibrates, stimulating the nerve bed so that the animal can “hear” motion around it. Not all snakes have otoliths but some species of burrowing snakes do.)
Where do you get the stone? Can you just buy it in the market?
The snake stones come from the Maasai, from big snakes in Maasai land. My teacher travels to Maasai land to get them and brings them back.
If the wound is fresh, I apply the stone. However, if it has been two or three days since the bite, I can’t use the stone anymore. Then I have to use a special medicine made from herbs and crushed snake heads. I mix it all together, then crush it into a powder and keep in a gourd.
When the patient comes in, I use a new razor blade to make small scratches on the wound. Then I rub the powder in it and bandage the wound. The wound will try to heal over time, so you have to make the scratches to be able to apply the powder.
Do you use the razor blade again?
No, I always use a new blade. (He was emphatic on this point.)
What is the powder made from?
Snakeheads. When we kill a snake, we keep the heads to make the powder. We mix it with roots, bark and leaves from special plants from deep in the forest. My teacher is a security guard in one of the forests and can get them when he can find them.
Wait, so your teacher is a forest ranger? Can’t he get by being an Mganga?
Yes. He is a forest ranger.
So he took the job so that he can get the plants from the forest whenever he needs them.
OK, so how many bites do you see per month?
It depends, some months I get more than others but mostly one every three months or so.
Do you refer them to the health facility for formal treatment?
Yes, I do. I treat them, then they go to the facility, then they come back to me. (I’m suspicious on this point, though the Mganga in question appears more together than most.)
Is there a religious component to this?
Well, there are two kinds of bites, those where the snake just bites and there is no witchcraft and those where someone has used magic to send the snake to bite you.
How do you know the difference?
If the bite heals quickly, there is no witchcraft. But if the bite is treated and does not improve then there is definitely witchcraft involved. At that time, I have to use powerful magic to get rid of the curse.
What do you do?
I send the snake back to the person who applied the curse. When we hear that someone nearby has been bitten, we know who applied the curse.
(Note: this is not uncommon. Witchcraft is often associated with hatred and revenge but the person applying the curse risks becoming cursed themselves. It is possible that snakebites are seen as a never ending battle of malevolent spiritual forces. What this does is sow distrust among people, even families and the Mganga is seen as the only cure. The result is that the Mganga are never without work.)
How did you learn this craft?
I was sick for a long time with stomach and head problems. I went to the hospital and it never got better so then I went to an Mganga. I improved. The Mganga suggested that I become on and I started training under him.
Thank you very much for your time.
We just spent the day driving around Kwale looking for snakes, and/or people who had been bitten by snakes. As the last post showed, snakebites are a persistent problem along the Kenyan Coast, with more then 5% of the households we survey indicating that at least one person in the household had been bitten in the past two years.
It wasn’t difficult to find them.
Snakes are universally feared all over Africa and the associations with witchcraft make it a common topic of discussion. Everyone knows someone who has been bitten. They often know all the details, including where it happened and what occurred following the bite. It’s never a happy story.
We went deep into Kinango, an extremely rural area west of Kwale Town and found a friendly lady who seemed to know everything about everyone. She was incredibly jolly, pulled out some plastic chairs for us to sit under and cracked jokes the whole time. I even got to copy her collection of Sangeya music which she had recorded on her phone (another post but you can hear some of it here) at some local music festivals. In total I got more than five hours of live Sengeya and Chilewa music. In the music world, these would be called “field recordings.” Here, this is just music she cooks and cleans to.
Switching back and forth between snakes and Sengenya (in Africa it seems to be possible to have multiple conversations at once), she told us about a kid who had been bitten two days previous. She even told us where to find her, so off we went.
The child was collecting firewood around a mango tree near her home, when she was suddenly bitten by a large green snake, not once but three times on the foot. The snake bit once skated away, decided it wasn’t enough and came back and bit her twice more.
Ants had moved into the dead tree and hollowed out the area underneath. Presumably, the snake moved in previously and came out to warm up during the day.
The mother thankfully took the child immediately to Kinango Hospital and treated was administered. The child was given a three day course of antivenom injections and charcoal was wrapped around the wounds to absorb any venomous discharge. Though the child complains of some numbness in the area, it looks as if there won’t be any permanent damage. Thankfully.
We were also told of an old woman who had been bitten more than 20 years ago, and was badly scarred, figured out where she was and off we went again.
As we pulled up a friendly young lady came out to greet us, and showed us the way to the house out back. In the distance, we could see an old lady walking with a limp. Otherwise, she was completely fit and seemed to be cutting her own firewood with a panga.
She brought us out some chairs and sat down to chat. In 1992, she had been out back collecting firewood (a pattern) and was bitten on the foot by puff adder, one of the deadliest snakes in the world. She was bitten on the foot, and became immobile for nearly a week. A series of witch doctors were brought in, who administered charcoal rubbed into small cuts in the skin.
Necrosis set in, and watery blood erupted out of the wound site. A large number of maggots appeared. Finally, someone had the good sense to take her to the hospital, where she spent an entire year.
The details were unclear, but it appeared that the gangrene was so severe that multiple infections were presents. They likely had her on intravenous antibiotics for an extended amount of time. Despite this, the foot did not heal. Some Christian missionaries came, and convinced her to convert to Christianity, which, she claimed, improved her condition. This is likely coincidental.
The doctors suggested a skin graft to improve the foot, but she refused. Necrosis was so deep that it permeated the bone and the foot is permanently curved as a result. The leg still shows sign of swelling even more than 24 years after the bite. In most cases, they probably would have simply amputated.
The lady was born in 1948, bore ten children, one of which was born just as she was bitten. She was unable to breast feed or care for the child. Regardless, the daughter has two children of her own now.
Snakebites are bad news. In this woman’s case, the disregard for proper medical care simply made a bad situation worse. She is truly lucky to be alive. If she had died, it is doubtful that the Mgangas would have admitted any responsibility.
I didn’t hear about this until the very last minute, but was lucky enough to get the invitation letter in time to at least make it to the last day.
The Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) has, for the past five years, held a research dissemination event intended to highlight KEMRI sponsored and Kenya based research.
Research led by Africans is sadly scarce. R&D funding in SSA is the lowest in the world. In a context where so few people are able to receive an education of sufficient quality to allow post graduate studies, African researchers are few and the resources available to them are low.
Kenya has committed 2% of GDP to R%D. Contrast this with South Korea, which at one point committed 23% of GDP to R&D efforts. While KEMRI is truly a leader in the context of African research, the low level of commitment on the part of the national government makes it tiny in the context of worldwide research.
The presentations I have seen so far have been excellent, but of course, much of this research survives on the good graces of international funding and training. Most of the research presented was performed within the CDC.
So this begs the question, when will and can African countries take ownership of their research? Is this even possible given the dysfunctional nature of politics here?
The story of Africa and African identity (in a global context) is written by the rest of the world. As a foreign researcher, I quite aware that I am part of this phenomenon.
Presenters have pointed to two main issues (which I agree with). First, African countries cannot proceed to develop their research sectors (or any other sector really) unless Africans take charge of in country and continent wide research priorities. It is important to note that foreign research often takes on issues which were of importance in the colonial period (childhood infectious diseases) despite a growing burden of chronic diseases and diseases of aging which will break the budgets and economies of African countries.
While I do not suggest that attention be diverted from the incredible burden of infectious disease in African countries, it is telling that research priorities are still driven by the international community. Central Province in Kenya is quite well developed. Even my taxi drivers ask me why we don’t do research in Central, given the incredible problems of heart disease, cancer and alcoholism up there. Unless Kenyans spearhead the main issues impacting their country, these problems will go unadressed.
Second, as noted before, governments have to make firm commitments to support domestic research. As of now, African countries wait for international funding to support their projects, which shifts the conversation away from domestic priorities to international priorities. This is a tall order here, of course.
Of interest, though, besides the macro level problems of funding and support, presenters passionately call for people with Masters and PhD to use the degrees. “Why don’t you do research? What is wrong with you?”
I can’t speak to this issue effectively. But my sense is that many capable people don’t sense the urgency of doing research and lack the personal initiative to make it happen. I’ve seen it happen that researchers wait to have foreigners write their research for them, and simply wait to have their name rubber stamped on the paper, taking credit for work that they did not do. This is an unacceptable situation that we, unfortunately, enable. Certainly there are issues of experience and capability, but we shouldn’t handle capable African researchers with kid gloves, particularly this well educated young generation.
Sadly, the history of aid and foreign involvement here has set this precedent. This is an era that needs to come to an end. In the private sector, it has. In the public sector, these problems persist. Older researchers, many of whom came of age during the beginnings of the post-independence era, here are screaming that point at the top of their lungs.
I’m reflecting on an interesting discussion that some of my colleagues and I had over dinner last night. We were discussing the Demographic Surveillance Program (DSS) that I am currently managing.
For those not familiar, DSS programs, generally speaking, do what you local city hall and health department do. They track births, deaths and migration and keep track of specific health outcomes such as cause of death and incidence of particular diseases. It’s pretty basic stuff, but outside the capacity of many developing countries, and the focus on health issues allows for deeper investigation of public health outcomes.
One of us, who is Kenyan, remarked that the DSS program needs to coordinate with the Kenyan government to satisfy specific data needs. I took issue with this idea.
First, as a program sponsored by a research institution, our number one priority should be the accommodation of research projects. A university receives public money to perform research projects which benefit and are directed by the scientists who run them.
Second, a research institution is not a development NGO that seeks to provide public services that countries are unwilling or unable to provide themselves. It is a fact that the Kenyan Government, like many African governments, has a poor record of providing public services. I would argue that while we should certainly offer results of our activities to the government and local stakeholders, that a university sponsored DSS should not be considered a substitute for that which governments should be doing themselves. The assumption is often that African government are incapable of doing things like tracking births and deaths, but the reality is that they are simply unwilling and the activities of NGOs often exacerbate this problem.
Third, government involvement in foreign sponsored research is a slippery slope. Many African governments are wholly or partially autocratic. They do not exist or function to benefit their people, but rather exist only to enrich themselves and maintain power. Academic research should, in no way, contribute to keeping autocrats in power and should operate independently from any political body. In fact, academia has a duty to question power both domestically and internationally. Unnecessarily submitting to government demands opens up a number of potentially problematic issues, including the suppression of results which are inconvenient to government bodies.
While research projects require government approval to function, the power of government to influence the course and outcomes of research should be limited. While many bureaucrats would take issue with this, the reality is we can always just go somewhere else.