Maseno Mission Hospital

Integrating Traditional African Medicine and Western Medicine into Modern Medical Care

For years before the Maseno Mission Hospital was founded, the local people relied on traditional African medicine for healing and treatment. Traditional medical practices were applied for each and every health problem facing people. During the 19th century, however, the European scramble and colonization of Africa led to the introduction of modern western medicine in Africa. Western medical practices, doctors, and medical institutions were introduced into places like Maseno town, western Kenya. Africans started attending western medical institutions such as the Maseno Mission Hospital for the treatment of some ailments but did not cut off their links to the traditional health practitioners. They often visited western health institutions for attention to some ailments, and traditional African medicinemen for attention to others.

Maseno Mission Hospital was founded by Anglican missionaries who came from England and settled in the Maseno part of western Kenya in 1906. Following the establishment of Maseno National School in 1906 to provide education to the children of the area, the hospital was founded thereafter to cater for the healthcare needs of the members of the local community. These services were important to the people of the area as well as to the emergent colonial government. While catering to the needs of the local people, these services helped to convince people about the benefits of colonialism. They also helped to consolidate the colonial system in the region.

Yet, although Maseno Mission Hospital started off as a philanthropic institution providing free or subsided medical care, today it operates more or less like a business enterprise charging patients and their relatives for medical services. The hospital has come a long way. While there are no statistics on the number of patients it has treated over the years, there is no doubt that thousands of patients have passed through the doors of the hospitals seeking treatment. Many patients have been treated there for ailments ranging from malaria to heart problems.

Maseno Mission Hospital, like most other western medical institutions in Africa, was established in a region with its own traditional medical or healthcare system of dealing with ailments and it therefore took awhile for people to get used to and start seeking treatment at the hospital rather than with their own traditional medicine men. Any time somebody was sick, he or she would seek out his or her traditional medical experts for treatment. In short, there existed traditional medical practices in Africa long before western hospitals such as the Maseno Mission Hospital were founded.

Africans relied on traditional African medicine for healing and treatment. They applied traditional medical beliefs and practices for any and every health problem facing their people. They believed in different branches of medicine dealing with physical and spiritual or metaphysical ailments. Proper and complete healing could only take place when an ailment was dealt with wholistically: with the application of medicine for the physical and the spiritual aspects of the ailment afflicting a patient. Africans believed that, in order for complete, proper, holistic healing to take place, the patient and his relatives had to investigate the cause of the affliction in order to apply the appropriate treatment necessary for the patient to make a full recovery from his affliction. Africans also believed that illnesses and diseases especially to the young and middle aged did not just happen by accident; every event, every illness and every disease was usually caused either by a an evil person or an evil spirit.

When an African fell ill, the first course of action was to discern the cause of the illness or health problem by visiting a traditional healer. The patient and his relatives could also visit traditional soothsayers, mediums, and priests for information on the cause of the ailment. Once they knew the cause of the ailment, they would visit the appropriate traditional expert such as herbalists or doctors for proper treatment.

There were very many highly skilled and knowledgeable traditional doctors in Africa that could be visited for their services. Among the Kisii people of western Kenya, for example, there were traditional doctors known locally as the "omobaris,” a term that literally means “surgeons of the head.” The “omobaris” were men who were highly skilled surgeons in Kisiiland. These were medicine men with a very high reputation. They were re-known for their expertise in performing craniotomies without anesthesia for those who suffered from severe headaches. During the surgery, the “omobaris” would use herbs to clean the surgical area of the frontal lobe of the skull before making a small incision using a knife or hacksaw blade. The purpose of this operation was to relieve pressure in the brain by taking out a small section of the skull.

Africans also visited traditional herbalists for treatment. Most herbalists had an extensive knowledge of local plants, soils, and animals which they used for making medicine for treatment. Their knowledge of the herbs and plants and animals and soils for healing were often kept secret. Africans also visited mediums, diviners, and seers for help with health problems.

Oftentimes, after numerous visits to a traditional doctor or herbalist, a person would also visit a diviner, medium, or healer to help deal with the spiritual or metaphysical aspects of the ailments. Animals such as chickens or goats or even cows could be slaughtered and offered as sacrifices to the spirit world to intervene on behalf of the patient before holistic treatment and healing could be achieved.

During the 19th century, western colonial powers invaded Africa and as the colonial system took root, western medical institutions also started appearing in different parts of Africa. Maseno Mission Hospital was one such institution offering free medical services to the local people. The early patients at these hospitals appear to have been the poor who for one reason or another could not visit traditional African medical experts for treatment. Some of the earliest patients at the hospital may have been students and teachers at the nearby Maseno National School. The poor and the destitutes who could not afford the services of the traditional doctors may also have visited the hospital for treatment. The first African converts may have been convinced by European missionaries to ditch traditional medical practices as backward and primitive for treatment at the hospital as modern and Christian.

As these patients received treatment at the hospital for ailments ranging from simple headache to malaria and to more complex medical problems such as childbirth or asthma or even heart ailments, it is possible that they started passing the word around about the hospital. The popularity of the hospital in the area consequently grew. Throughout the colonial period, many patients and their relatives visited the hospital for treatment for ailments that in the past they would seek out traditional doctors for. Maseno Mission Hospital became a permanent fixture in the region, offering people much needed medical care in a region where public/government funded medical services have been in short supply.

Yet, in spite of the wonders that western medical science has achieved, the approach of western medical institutions to health care has grave shortcomings. There is, for example, an overload of patients which often leaves little time for doctors to build a real and meaningful relationship with the patient. Whereas in the past so much attention was focused on obtaining useful knowledge of a patient’s family history and background before treatment was given, today there is so much focus on money that the time that doctors used to spend with their patients is often reduced to something like a ten-minute social visit at most. Second, many hospitals have been hit by acute shortages of medicine, nurses, and doctors. Other problems include congestion and shortage of space, as well as corruption.

Maseno Mission Hospital has not been immune to these problems. Apart from these problems, it has also been dealing with other, more immediate challenges. The hospital is currently facing significant competition from the Maseno University Hospital and the Port Florence Hospital in Kisumu County. Although there have been efforts to partner the Maseno Mission Hospital and Maseno University Hospital, this has not gone on smoothly. Maseno’s CEO, Mr. Allen Baraza, has talked vaguely about the hospitals’ plans for expansion and development, and it is not clear how and when this is going to be done.

Nevertheless, Maseno Mission Hospital has over the years continued to develop its services in order to meet the advanced and varied needs of its patients. The hospital now has two ambulances. It has advanced laboratories and equipment. New projects have been initiated at the hospital such as kidney dialysis treatment, chemotherapy and surgical procedures revolving around the cure of cancer. Endoscopy machines were expected to be operational by the end of 2016. There are plans to establish a clinical mental center to assist people in the community who are dealing with mental challenges. There are also significant renovation plans involving remodeling of the hospital maternity wing. Furthermore, the hospital plans to introduce new courses focusing on nutrition, ophthalmology, dental and nursing. In addition, there are plans to link online nursing courses at the hospital to other institutions, with the opening of a new nursing branch in the municipal sector of Kisumu.

The Kenyan government is also currently supporting the hospital in terms of provision of medicine. Hopefully, continued efforts of the Maseno Mission Hospital will attract more support from other agencies around Kisumu and, in due time, from other agences all across Kenya.

Given enough time, combined efforts of traditional and modern medical doctors may be incorporated side by side to further strengthen the field of medicine as it is known and practiced at the hospital. In fact, many Kenyans often seek treatment in both traditional and modern medicine simultaneously. Although Maseno Mission Hospital has consolidated the presence of western medicine in the area of Maseno, the traditional medical system is still quite popular. Patients usually visit both the traditional and modern doctors for treatment for various ailments. Others usually visit the traditional doctors for treatment first before going to a modern western hospital. Thus, many people still prefer the familiarity of personal contacts with their traditional healers, and the services of western doctors at hospitals such as the Maseno Mission Hospital. This is the reality of life in modern Africa.

It is also instructive that a growing number of traditional doctors recognize modern science as a very powerful source of healing and will therefore refer patients when they have done all they can for their patients. Sadly, though, this can result in the patient reaching the doctor too late. As stated in a magazine called “Different Drums,” one of the most heartbreaking things seen in any African hospital is the number of untreated diseases which could have been treated with positive results had the person managed to get to the hospital much sooner.

Modern western doctors have also started recognizing the role of traditional medicine in not only curing diseases that have continued to defy western knowledge, but also in dealing with the spiritual or metaphysical angle of ailments afflicting the modern African patient. Western trained doctors, many of whom were initially skeptical, are gradually recognizing that traditional medicine is essential if we are to understand that the scientific medical emphasis on “logic”, on the devotion of cause and effect, and the African “spirit world” can both mesh and complement each other for the benefit of all patients. The African herbalist can administer a herb which could have a tremendous healing effect, however, without the proper dosage the herb can be fatal. Western science could greatly assist in making the herbalist’s skills more effective. The African diviner has deep psychic powers and is held in the highest esteem in the community. His goal is to put the patient at ease as he gently extracts emotional and painful “spirits” out of the patients’ mental state. This practice, in a western setting, is equivalent to psychiatry.

Maseno Mission Hospital can take the lead in this region in the practice of combining traditional African, and western, medical practice. It can show the way in wholistic medicine, where patients are given both the traditional African, and western, attention for ailments. Maseno Mission Hospital can take the lead in this regard.

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Kisumu-Busia Road, P.O. Box 116, Maseno 40105 ~ Telephone Number: 057-351006 E-Mail: msnmission@gmail.com Located east of the Fadhili Hotel