Climate change confounds Kenya’s traditional healers

by May 31, 2011Climate Change

DADAJIBULA, Kenya – An unprecedented drought is destroying the livelihoods of communities across northern Kenya, among them traditional healers and medicine men, who are at a loss to know how to respond.

Daud Sheikh, head of the traditional healers council in Dadajibula, says prolonged drought is not new in this arid and semi-arid region, but this time it is different.

“We have never witnessed such a problem before and we suspect that we have done something wrong or an ancestor is not happy with what we have been doing,” he says.

The current dry season began in July 2010. Usually rains fall in November or December, and again in March and April. This time, none came. If the weather follows its traditional pattern, the next rains should fall in June or July.

Benjamin Akavasi, executive director of Kenya Climate Forum, a Nairobi-based climate consultancy group, says climate change is altering weather patterns and severe shocks like this are becoming a fact of life.

“These changes will affect traditional healers everywhere in the world,” he says. “The most important thing is they should go back and take advantage of indigenous knowledge available in coping with the problem.”


Traditional healers, a respected group in northern Kenya, use roots, leaves, tree bark and other plants to treat a variety of ailments.

Pastoralists from across the region travel to Dadajibula, a bustling border town and a known centre for traditional healing, in search of treatment, blessings and advice.

“Communities in these remote villages prefer traditional medicine,” says Abdi Bashe, a medical official in Wajir district of northern Kenya.

Patients pay the healers by offering them goats and cattle according to the type of disease and period of treatment. Today, many have lost their livestock, and can no longer pay.

Even if they could, the healers have nothing to offer. “There are no materials from the trees; all of it has dried up. We don’t know where to go and look for the plants to make traditional medicines,” says Daud Sheikh.

Dadajibula, a once-bustling settlement on the border with Somalia, is now a ghost town.

One resident, Sirat Olow, says hotels and other small businesses offering food or rooms for patients in search of traditional treatments are struggling.

“My business is completely down and I am on the point of closing my hotel. I have no customers and for last two months I have seen only 20 customers from this local village. The huge business I use to get is no more,” he adds. “I pray everyday for rain to come so that healers can get medicine and the customers come back.”


Maryam Bishar, from nearby Sabuli village, would like nothing better than for the healers to have stocks of medicine again. “I have been sick for three months now and I am suffering from yellow fever,” she says.

Her father, Rashid Gesey, takes up the story. “My daughter was scheduled to receive her treatment by the third week of December last year and I was waiting for a go ahead from the healer so that I could take her to Dadajibula village. But I was informed that a plant used to treat yellow fever is not available for now.”

The climate forum’s Akavasi sees healers’ traditional knowledge as their greatest ally even in these new tough conditions.

“Traditional healers hail from communities rich with traditional knowledge and the knowledge shows how the same communities predicted weather and prepared for big shocks like this in northern Kenya,” he says.

“Most of them store medicines to be used during the long drought periods while others store seeds using traditional methods of preservation and plant during the start of rains,” he said.

Asha Mulki of the Frontier Indigenous Network, a community-based organization that champions the rights of marginalized groups in northern Kenya, agrees.

“Pastoralist communities have used various traditional methods of detecting climatic shocks like looking at the star patterns, listening to sounds and noises from frogs and certain bird species and also monitoring some trees shedding their leaves,” she says.


Forewarned by such signs, the pastoralists have traditionally stored water and managed pasture to ensure there is enough to carry them through to the next rains.

“The idea of slaughtering (cattle) and salting meat has assisted many communities and families as they can use the meat for long periods of time, sometimes six months to one year and that acts as a source of food and protein,” she says.

Akavasi says communities have also used communal banks for storing seeds and traditional medicines. Some communities also know how to store water by identifying areas with a certain type of sand that controls evaporation and maintains the water level for long periods.

“The communities can store water in a community dam or a system known as silanga, where water collected from shallow wells and boreholes is stored and used in a managed way until the rainy season approaches,” he says.

“This silanga system has been used for many years and many organisations have devised and upgraded the system so that it can store more water,” he adds.

The healers say prolonged drought has long been a regular problem in the region, though the current one is worse.

“We were aware of prolonged drought coming as we witness it every 10 years. The last prolonged drought did not affect our work, and we went on with our business though the harvest of medicinal plants was minimal compared to other seasons,” Daud Sheikh recalls.


This time it’s different but the healers, many of them elderly, are not giving up.

Their council has met to consult the ancestors. Convinced they had missed making a sacrifice for medicinal plants harvested to treat fertility, they have made ritual offerings and sacrifices at a shrine a few kilometres from Dadajibula.

“We have repented and offered enough sacrifices and we hope things will turn round soon,” Daud Sheikh says.

But as the healers and communities wait for rain, the human crisis deepens.

Community belief and trust in traditional medicine is so strong among pastoralists and in remote villages that health workers fear some people will die rather than seek help in hospitals in main towns such as Wajir, Garissa and Mandera.

They have used local Somali-language radio and appeals to community leaders to urge ill pastoralists to seek treatment in hospitals and clinics.

“We have created awareness for the pastoralists to bring their patients to health centers and hospitals, but the situation is not changing,” says Abdi Bashe, the medical official in Wajir district.

“We feel that prolonged drought coupled by lack medicinal plants might lead to deaths,” he says.