Perhaps one of the most widely-shared stories in the recent history of The Observer newspaper – especially in the times of the Covid-19 pandemic – is the story of David Ssenfuka, the herbalist who treats and actually cures cancer and diabetes.
Yes, that he ‘cures’ these high-profile illnesses will sink in well only for folks fully liberated from the colonialism of the mind. [Our schools being colonial impositions, and the perversive Western spin, which is now the specialisation of CNN, BBC, Hollywood, social media outlets, many Africans – elite and non-elite – pleasantly wallow in perpetual mental bondage.
It has to be Mzungu-endorsed to be trusted and modern]. Published in the middle of a painful Covid-19 lockdown, and coming on the heels of Covidex, which has sparked a national conversation on the place of herbal remedies in our healthcare system, Dr Ssenfuka’s story demonstrates colossal national failure, betrayal, egregious selfishness, deep colonial mentalities, comprador elitism and aggressive international capitalism.
Eight years since he started out, Dr Ssenfuka [I use the title Dr deliberately] has unsuccessfully written to different ministries that are allegedly responsible for items such as innovation or health in Uganda.
Having cured hundreds of patients in the traditional way his grandmother did many years ago, which was outside of the purview of the state, Dr Ssenfuka, in pure patriotic spirit, wants to mainstream his cures. He has to subject them to “modern science” and approval by his state.
Thus, inspired by the stories of many full recoveries, tests in different labs, and numerous recommendations by mainstream scientists, he has completed animal trials. He now wants his research to enter human and other clinical trials for later National Drug Authority (NDA) approval.
Human trials are not only engaged with clearance of government, but are also doubly expensive. At this stage, he hit a deadlock as his government simply ignored him.
The story first appeared in print on July 4, 2021, under the headline, “Ssenfuka, P7 dropout celebrated for treating diabetes and cancer.”
While sourcing the story, the reporter Mohammad Kakembo, in addition to talking to the man behind the medicine, also reviews several documents from Mulago hospital labs, different other labs, and medical professionals across Kampala who have attested – in both speech and writing – to the healing power of Ssenfuka’s herbal remedies.
The reporter also spoke to previous patients now enjoying their lives. Some shared video and picture evidence of their illness and recovery journeys. Once the story appeared in the online edition, it simply went viral.
By the seventh day after the story appeared, the reporter had received over 250 emails, where between 80 per cent - 90 per cent of these were sick Ugandans and other nationals – from places as far as Nigeria and USA – asking for connections and directions to the famed herbalist.
In addition to these many emails, the reporter also received close to 100 phone calls (somehow, people managed to get his number as the newspaper does not publish reporters’ phone numbers) all of them asking for directions and connections. Many local callers were folks with big titles and public profiles in Kampala.
The picture that emerges is that Ugandans are sick. Everyone is sick. The men we see driving around in shiny hissing automobiles and convoys are sick, or have ailing kindred.
After issuing threats to country, and handing over the country to foreign corporations, they retreat to their gated domiciles and cry – as they watch loved ones wasting away to failing Mzungu medicine.
Mzungu medication – especially for cancer and diabetes – despite being simply therapeutic, perpetually hooks its clients, bankrupting them in the process. Many of these clients then go to Ssenfuka as a desperate last resort or having heard of him only recently.
But this man with a proven herbal cure [I can hear our mentally colonised, and useful Uncle Toms grumbling, “but clinical trials first, where are the clinical trials, nyonyonyo”] is being frustrated by a government which enjoys chanting hackneyed slogans such as “African solutions to African problems.”
His many pleas and letters – including some pushed through his powerful clients such as former judge John Baptist Katutsi and Maj Gen Kahinda Otafiire – have been met with cold silence. Instead, he has received threats to his life, telling him to stop his research.
It has become so scary to the point that there is a signpost at his clinic indicating that he does not take in new random patients. We should ask again: in a country with a rich history of herbal remedies, why hasn’t Dr Ssenfuka received all the help he needs to advance his work in a critical area of public health?
With all the evidence that speaks to his success; with all the high-profile clients, why have his herbal cures remained unknown to the general public, which is terribly sick?
With the World Health Organisation (WHO) acknowledging that 70 per cent – 80 per cent of adult Ugandans never see a doctor in their lifetimes, but instead rely on herbal remedies for their illnesses, why have herbal cures remained peripheral in Uganda’s public health sector?
There are three possible explanations for this: (a) a perverse ingrained inferiority complex (b) a largely careless, selfish and comprador political leadership, and (c) an aggressive capitalist order.
It will take a lot of work to liberate the minds of Africa’s educated folks who, high on CNN, BBC and Hollywood, are embarrassed to identify with the undeniably useful concoctions of their ancestors.
In the end, when these elites become leaders, they are not only too ignorant of the mischievous world of global medical trade, but would rather invest in heedless symbolisms such as “manufacturing” Kayoola buses, than mainstreaming herbal medical research.
The author is a political theorist based at Makerere University.