Not everyone who lands his or her eyes on your baby has good intentions, people in my community believe. There are those with an evil eye whose glance at your child may mean transferring witchcraft that will leave the baby writhing in pain, with their belly often swelling. If you do not intervene in time, the baby dies.
Intervention usually involves massaging the baby with some concoction or warm water with a coin in it. Sometimes paraffin is the preferred cleanser. After the massage, solids drop off from the baby’s body, and he or she is then relieved.
It is said that sand, grass leaves, bottle-tops, peelings among other things drop off as the baby is being massaged. These are substances, it is said, that are usually at the spot where a child is when the spell is cast.
The Abagusii call this witchcraft ebibiriri, and the phenomenon also exists among the Luhya and Luo communities.
From observations at my home area, the people with an evil eye in the society are often known, and the theories on how they get possessed are as interesting as they are scary. It is said that they mostly cast the spells involuntarily by just glancing at a child. To ensure a child resists the evil spell, locals in Gusiiland have devised various tactics such as applying special oil on a child’s forehead, placing a coin on the child’s shoe or clothes, and making the child wear a bead made of seeds from the Abyssinian coral tree (omotembe).
Last Sunday, I attended a fundraiser for the burial of a relative’s child, who is believed to have died due to this kind of witchcraft. Apparently, the one-year-old child was bewitched, and when she was rushed to a Nairobi hospital, doctors did something that should never be done when responding to such a case — giving an injection.
“An injection is a sure way to kill a child because ebibiriri is incompatible with it,” a relative told me.
This has left me wondering whether our medical and nursing schools cover such phenomena in their curriculum.
Is is possible that the ebibiriri phenomenon clashes with modern medicine, or is it a long-running misconception in communities? Are doctors informed about the phenomenon before being posted to areas where residents believe in this kind of witchcraft?
My online research led me to a thesis done by Ms Joyce Manoti, who focused on herbal medicine in her research for a Master’s degree in Applied Epidemiology at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.
Ms Manoti centred her research on the residents of Gucha in Kisii County. “The Gusii people believe in a phenomenon called ‘evil eye’ (ebibiriri) where a child develops high fever and breathing becomes difficult. This condition is never referred to a hospital. Some medical experts believe that ebibiriri is pneumonia, but others are unsure about it,” she writes.
Ms Manoti interviewed a 58-year-old herbalist who was categorical that the “evil eye” cannot be treated in hospital.
In my limited research, I could not find any evidence that this form of witchcraft and other tradition-linked phenomena are taught to Kenyan medical students, which may put some health workers in trouble. I can imagine the anger a family can have against a nurse or doctor “who injected and killed our baby” without knowledge of the intricacies of this form of witchcraft.
I think these were the challenges faced by missionaries, who introduced science-based medicine to Kenya. There were times, I believe, when the sick could swear there was no other cure to their ailment than using the good old systems, which were always not very far from magic.
In Ms Manoti’s 2015 research on herbal medicine used in Gucha, where 167 people were surveyed, she found out that a whopping 83 per cent of the respondents believed that herbal medicine was more effective than conventional medication. “Belief about herbal medicine efficacy is that certain disease conditions are traditionally cured by herbal medicine,” she wrote.
Next time I bump into a doctor or a nurse, I will ask them how they are trained to deal with such realities.
[email protected] Elvis Ondieki is a reporter with ‘Sunday Nation’. Carol Njung’e’s column resumes in August.