The Vomit Clinic
Excerpts from my blog at http://bigtummyinkenya.blogspot.com
February 4, 2006. My friend Julia runs the village vomit clinic. She calls it an herbal medicine practice, but when sick people come over to your house and barf into a basin so you can analyze it, I call it a vomit clinic.
She has been running it for about four years, and people come from as far as Kapsabet, the district capital an hour and a half away by bus, seeking the healing powers of puke. The vomit potion is a family secret handed down through the ages, made by boiling the dried bark of a certain tree from the forest. Within ten minutes of drinking the potion, the patient inevitably vomits.
This is when Julia works her magic. By poking at the contents of the patient’s vomit and observing its color, taste and the presence of mucus or blood, she can tell you what illness you have. Yellow vomit and a bitter taste (determined by asking the patient, not by tasting it herself) indicate malaria, while a small spot of blood suggests worms. Sometimes just vomiting seems to cure the patient, while other times she’ll tell them to go to the dispensary or pharmacy to get medication.
The clinic is only open on Saturdays from 7am to noon, but its reputation has spread through word of mouth and now she does big business, especially during harvest time when people have relatively lots of money. She charges 100 shillings for one dose of the potion and her diagnosis.
Julia had nine clients today. She took me around to each patient as she analyzed their vomit by swirling it around with a tree branch. I saw brucellosis, which is indicated by greenish puke and a thick mucus; malaria, which is dark orange-yellow; a migraine with a cough, which is a clearish mucus that comes from the spinal cord and causes the headache; a lung problem with worms, which is chunky yellow mucus that stays in one corner of the basin; and pneumonia, which includes a small spot of blood.
It was all very fascinating, and completely disgusting. Julia said all of the clients she saw today would get well on their own, without any further medication. Just expelling the mucus usually gets rid of the bacteria or toxins causing the disease, she says.
I’m not a doctor but I’m a little skeptical. People in the village swear by her vomit clinic, though, so what can I say? There is a world of evidence that evidence-based medicine is not the only effective way to treat illnesses. In rural settings where people’s most trusted sources of information are word of mouth and personal experience, people get through life by relying more on each other than on WebMD. According to at least nine people today, Julia’s vomit clinic is a worthwhile investment in faith. And here in her village of Kapkoi, there’s no internet to argue otherwise.