Call Mama Doctor


By Louise Jilek-Aall, M.D.

We did go to Africa together, my Austrian friend and I. Together we traveled through the worst rainy season I had seen and reached Mahenge after many adventures. The welcome we received in Kwiro was overwhelming. The kifafa patients gave us a big feast with dancing and singing. The photographic talent of my friend came to good use; I loved to show him the beauty of this African land and felt proud, as if I owned it all. The medicine man took us on safaris into the mountains to gather the barks and roots he used in the treatment of kifafa. He explained the names and properties of trees and herbs so well that we were able to identify the collected specimens botanically. The mission allowed us to dry the plants on the attic above the schoolgirls' dormitory, which, however, led to unexpected complications. The girls reacted with apprehension as the medicine man spread out his powerful remedies, and one night when the pungent smell of the nefuzi roots sifted down into their dormitory, they fled in panic. We had to send for the medicine man, and not before he had reassured the frightened girls would they go to bed again.

As I had predicted, new kifafa patients arrived daily. We had to examine all and screen them for admission. Together we re-organized the kifafa clinic and trained three Wapogoro girls to help the mission nurse care for the kifafa patients and their families. By the time we had to leave, the number of patients receiving regular treatment at our Center had swelled to over two hundred.

Our workday started at dawn and lasted until sunset, leaving us hardly any time for ourselves. Staying at a mission, we had to part at suppertime as my friend enjoyed the privilege of dining with the Fathers in the refectory. I envied him this opportunity of discussing African experiences with the missionaries while I had to eat alone in my little chamber. I used to watch for the lights to go out in the refectory; then I knew he would come back to be with me for a while before returning to his room at the Fathers' house. Now the mission was quiet and nobody disturbed us as we enjoyed the splendor of the tropical night.

It was a struggle to transport the dried plants the long way to the coast. The sacks had to be carried over flooded fields, canoed across swift rivers and driven on devastated roads, tightly packed in the back of our landrover. Most of the material had to be dried again in Dar-es-Salaam, where we spread it out on the sunbaked roof of the Archbishop's House. We felt great relief the day we finally managed to get the medicine man's cargo through the customs and shipped off to Europe. Unfortunately, our efforts to contribute to the development of a new antiepileptic agent out of the traditional African pharmacopeia were in vain. Chemical isolation of the effective principles turned out to be uneconomical for manufacturing and the pharmaceutical company finally lost interest.

We had a few relaxing days before we left East Africa. I thoroughly enjoyed them and had no objections when my friend took me to an Indian jeweller to choose our engagement rings. We married the same year and shortly afterwards emigrated to Canada where we made our home.

Throughout the years we kept alive the kifafa clinic in Mahenge, supporting it financially and consulting with the nurse on each case. We succeeded in supplying the patients with medication through the help of our friend Al Elliott of the pharmaceutical company Elliott-Marion of Canada. Encouraged by our Canadian friends, we have continued to attract the attention of humanitarians to the plight of the African epileptics and to create international awareness of the possibilities of treating and rehabilitating those afflicted with an otherwise disabling condition. At the Epilepsy International Symposium held in Vancouver in 1978 our presentation on kifafa and the factors accounting for its relatively high prevalence met with renewed interest and rekindled our hope for the eventual realization of a comprehensive treatment program for all sufferers from epilepsy in Africa.

Copyright 1979 Louise Jilek-Aall
Reprinted with permission

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