Chief who used witchcraft to save people from smallpox

A field doctor vaccinating people against smallpox in what was then the Coast Province in 1967. [File, Standard]

When all was grim and even conventional medicine could not ward off the onslaught of a deadly outbreak, a traditional chief devised a method to save his people from certain death.

More than 120 years ago, Kenya did not exist as we know it today. This geographic area was then just a patchwork of diverse communities living in remote enclaves and existing in exclusivity as sovereign states.

At about this time in August 1899, a deadly plague, smallpox, swept through many of the villages from Mombasa to Nairobi and everywhere in between and beyond. The pioneering European traders and hunters who roamed wild Africa in search of ivory have recorded harrowing experiences with what they saw.

One of these traders, John Boyes, recalls discovering the first case of smallpox in Tuthu, deep in Murang’a, where he had ventured and established the headquarters of his trading empire against the British administrators in 1898.

When he spotted an infected man, he ordered him to be isolated so he wouldn’t infect others, but he later freed himself. His host, Karuri Wa Gakure, the pioneer chief, used his powers as a witch doctor to keep the ominous wave at bay.

“One rather remarkable thing about this epidemic was that Karuri’s village completely escaped, not a single case occurred among the residents, which Karuri claimed, due to certain precautions he took to ward off the evil.

According to Boyes, “Karuri took some sticks and split them in half, then poured some gunpowder into the opening, and then fastened the sticks across all the footpaths leading to the village. It didn’t stop people from coming in, and I couldn’t see how the sticks could do any good, but Karuri had great faith in their virtues, and since there was no case of smallpox in the village, he took the credit for keeping it claim it away.”

Karuri explained that his people respected him because they believed he possessed “the most wondrous poison that had the power to kill anyone who looked at his medicine, passed down and cherished in his family for three generations.”

While Tuthu and his unconventional but “potent medicine” escaped unscathed, the administrator Francis Hall in Murang’a had isolated some of those infected, but dozens still died.

Further in Naivasha thousands died despite vaccination, but in Mombasa things got really bad.

The seaside town was described by Hall as a “confluence of smallpox,” where police picked up bodies on the streets and at times caused an average of 57 deaths in a day.

Later, even after Boyes rushed through the jungle to Naivasha where he vaccinated thousands of Africans, thousands still died from smallpox.

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