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Lived to 115 years without medical care

Majid Wangal Jr.Majid Wangai Jr., MD, PhD, MPH

Our maternal grandfather died last week after his 115th birthday. He left children, 33 grandchildren (of which I am one) and 36 great grandchildren. All kinds of professionals amongst these including doctors, teachers, research scientists, administrators, clergy and many others. He died of an encounter with “western medicine.” Now that is another story. Let us start from the beginning.

Born in 1892, he saw first-hand the colonizers of East Africa. He also went to formal western “school” which at the time was a lower primary school. Being able to “read, write and do arithmetic” in those days made him a very “educated” man. He carefully kept all the dates of his children and notable national events. In essence it made him a walking “history” icon in the community.

He was a community leader who rose to a “headman,” a colonial parlance of an administrative village unit often also referred to as assistant chief.

His one principle in life: Never use western medicine, or the “white man’s medicine” as he used to refer to it. He was a popular traditional herbalist. He would take mixtures of crushed roots here; boil the bark of trees there, and leaves thither. Somehow he knew what to get in the forest, how to prepare them and the dosages. Many a time we would sit to interrogate him. How did he know what to use? And what medicine for what condition? How about the diagnosis? How did he know what was wrong with patients? Did he know the side effects? How did he treat malaria? Pneumonia? Snake bite? Hypertension? Diabetes? Infertility?

These are some of the questions we would ask him. He took all at ease as he “educated” us, his children, who were “western trained” yet lacking in the experience of the “old medical ways” of our grandfathers. It was his joy to “educate” us: His proof that our lack of knowing such basic “medicine” was evidence of the superiority of Traditional Medicine over western medicine!

In his whole life he never took any western medicine. How could a Traditional Herbalist take western medicine when the entire community depended on his medical skills? It would be a betrayal of his profession. Somehow he would use the same medical concoctions for himself when he was unwell. He brought himself to recovery each and every time. “The day I take western medicine will be the end of me!” he once quipped to us. These words were to haunt us later on.

We were amazed to see him cured of malaria, pneumonia, snake bites, dyspepsias and many more. Each time he declined our “western medicine” and used his traditional concoctions, we saw him recover back to optimal health. It worked. He walked upright; spoke fluently, stayed at his house, conversed freely with a clear mind and in good robust health!

Some years back he stopped his vices: alcohol and tobacco. He says it was not good for his health. To our joy, he stopped. For him it was just part of a disciplined Traditional Herbalist doing what is good for his health. He woke up one day and said, “It’s over!” And indeed it was over. No more vices. That’s it! “After all, what’s the use of helping others overcome what you can’t yourself?” He quipped. How we wish we could practice what we tell our patients.

More recently he lost his teeth. He refused any dentures! We tried to get him to accept dental care and a set of dentures. He wouldn’t hear of it. “Didn’t I tell you that the day you give me your white man’s medical care will be my end?” We kept quiet. It was no use arguing with him. We just listened.
“You aren’t going to give me western dental care! Who says I need to chew hard food to survive?” So all his food was now mashed as he ate with his edentulous gums. “No problem. It’s better than getting artificial western teeth! After all it was God’s will I have no teeth. Who can change it?” Here traditional medicine had no solution.

Even more recently he started having failing eyesight. Again, with this condition traditional medicine had no solution. We could see obvious mature cataracts. We tried hard to get him to accept cataract surgery.

“Of course not! No western medicine for me! What do you think people will say? Their Traditional “Doctor” going for Western medicine? That would be a betrayal. Not for me! Remember what I have always told you? Going to a western Doctor will be my end! After all it is God’s will I do not see!”

All our attempts were to no avail. “But grandpa, we can get a specialized Doctor friend to come and do the surgery right here at your home. No one needs to know.”

 “Oh, no children”, he would say, “Its not others seeing me, it is all about having integrity in my herbal practice!” What a lesson for our practices, too!

In the recent past, his eyesight deteriorated so badly that he became essentially blind. Or so we thought. He couldn’t read or write anymore. He couldn’t see his way at all. But with a walking stick, he could find his way around his house and grope around his compound with little difficulty.

One time, one of his great-grandchildren (our son who is an upcoming western-trained doctor) accompanied us to see his great grandfather. He took a digital picture (without telling him he was doing it; after all he was blind we thought!) of him feeling how far my hairline had receded.

When the flash went off, he stopped and asked. “Who is taking a picture of me without my permission?”

We tried to derail him. “Come on grandpa, what are you talking about?”

 “You think I am an old blind fool, hey? I saw a flash of light. It must be a camera. Someone trying to photograph me with a western camera! Stop it!” His great grandson stopped and discreetly walked away. He apparently could detect light. We all along thought he was completely blind. We were wrong.

A fortnight ago, it was a cold July (our tropical “winter” with temperatures hovering around 10 degrees centigrade) and he contracted a “simple flu.” It became worse. He had respiratory distress. He went semi-comatose. He was rushed to a western hospital where he was admitted. His very first encounter with, and treatment by, western medicine. He didn’t know where he was. This was fortunate as he would have protested and cursed whoever brought him to that western “chamber of death!”

As he recovered on antibiotics and assisted respiratory care, he kept thinking he was at his house. He kept calling his children and asking for this and that to be brought to him. No one dared tell him where he was. God forbid that he knows he is in a western hospital and getting western medicine! We all held our breath!

He recovered and was discharged home on treatment. At home after breakfast and a hot bath he went to bed for a nap. He was quite comfortable and in no distress whatsoever. At lunch hour a son went to wake him up for lunch. He had died in his sleep peacefully.

He had repeatedly told his western-trained doctor grandchildren that he had no room for western medicine. Furthermore, the day he gets such care would be his end. He lived up to it. He died. In his reasoning western medicine would see his demise. We gave him for the first and only time western medicine and he died. Yet he took traditional medicine all his life and it did him good!

After all, the power of life and death is not in our hands as doctors. It is the prerogative of Allah. How often we see patients with a common condition. “This is easy. This patient will pull out well,” we muse; then the next time he is dead! Or other times we think the case is hopeless. Then the patient picks up and goes home cured! When Allah’s determined time gets here, none of us can escape the cruel hand of death. That is why we always say “this and that will happen, Inshallah!” It is His prerogative. That is yet another reminder from our grandpa. When his time reached he left us. Allah’s will knows no appeal. He left fond memories of his life’s sojourn on earth.

He left a rich legacy and many lessons for his western-trained doctor grandchildren and great grandchildren. Above all, a fresh look at traditional medical practice. Adieu grandpa!

Majid Wangai Jr., MD, a consultant physician at Medicare Wellness Centres in Nairobi, Kenya, attended a certificate course in Public Health Nutrition at the Bloomberg School in 1986. He co-wrote this piece with Dr. Maryam Wangai.

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