Rogue herbalists fleece people living with HIV in Kenya

A promise for a cure that would release Jesse Ng’ang’a from the daily intake of antiretroviral drugs saw him visit one of the many cure-it-all herbalists in Gilgil town.

A promise for a cure that would release Jesse Ng’ang’a from the daily intake of antiretroviral drugs saw him visit one of the many cure-it-all herbalists in Gilgil town.

Jesse was given a concoction that left him drunk for several days after which he went back to his antiretrovirals. Such stories of rogue herbalists who fleece villagers in Kenya by blatantly claiming they can cure AIDS are not uncommon.

Posters are pasted on anything that can capture the public eye giving a catalogue of diseases that herbalists can treat. Ng’ang’a had planned to keep his status a secret from his wife and the society, so it was easy for him to fall for the tricksters. “I made a secret journey to this herbalist in Gilgil town who claims to have treated 98 cases of AIDS,” recalls Ng’ang’a.

Herbalist’s extortionate fees

The young father of two explained how the herbalist first interrogated him to learn all he could about the historical details of his disease, including a query on whether he was tested in a public or private health facility.

“After informing him that I was tested in a public facility, he told me how his fame had spread far and wide due to his healing powers,” says Ng’ang’a. “What followed was an hour long session of prayers. Having invoked the powers of the supernatural, the herbalist explained that it would cost Ksh. 4,000 [USD 45] for the consultation fee, while the actual treatment which would last 60 days and would require Ksh. 10,000 [USD 112].”

Following this, Ng’ang’a was asked to sign a memorandum of understanding binding him to pay Ksh. 100,000 [USD 1,124] once he was cured in about two months time. “He however informed me that if I could not afford the money as per the agreement I would have to forfeit my land title deed to him as I look for the money,” says Ng’ang’a.

The poverty gap and HIV

Like many others who have fallen to the tricksters folly, Ng’ang’a’s secret trip was the first – and last. After coming to his senses, he revealed his status to his wife who then encouraged him to seek antiretroviral therapy through Kikopey Diatomite Community Based Organisation (CBO).

One reason for the continuing spread of HIV is the widening poverty gap, which has given way to mushrooming of brothels in most urban centers in Kenya.

“It is very difficult for us because our children have migrated to urban centres to look for jobs,” says Mary Wanjiru, a grandmother who is taking care of two grandchildren left behind by the daughter. “Unfortunately easy money which flows in the town has lured them to prostitution and immorality.”

Lack of code of ethics

And as HIV spreads, so does the herbalists’ appetite. According to Euphenia Njeri, the founder of Kikopey Diatomite CBO, both the rate of HIV infection and stigma are high.

“At first no one wanted neighbours and fellow villagers to know about one’s HIV status and so they would seek help from herbalists,” says Njeri, a resident of Kenya’s Rift Vallley region who has gone public about her status. “Before long the herbalists realised this was an untapped potential with promises of rich returns and so they thrived.”

The Kenya legal system favours them too and, to date, herbal medicine practice is not guided by any law or code of ethics.

This story was first published in the Daily Nation.