Blessed: Lessons Learned from our Work with Traditional Healers

by Jessica Charles Abrams

Three women standing within a circle of listening women

By, Jessica Charles, Kupenda’s Development Director

The first time I sat in a workshop alongside 25 Kenyan traditional healers, I was nervous. I’d heard that these herbalists, soothsayers and witchdoctors were conducting painful traditional healing practices on children with disabilities in their communities — things like skin cutting, exorcisms, and live burials. Some of them had even supported infanticide to protect the children’s families from the curses they believed had caused their disability.

I was there to support our Kenyan field staff who had come to teach the healers about the medical causes of and treatments for disabilities and the rights of people with disabilities. But I was nervous. Would the healers accept this message? Put a curse on us for trying to change them?

Surprisingly, the session went remarkably well. There was a lively discussion and even moments of debate but in the end all 25 healers had made commitments to helping the children with disabilities in their villages access education and medical care. I felt hopeful in the moment but wondered if they’d actually follow through.

Today, five years later, all I can say is that I’m deeply humbled by the outcome. I’ve learned that the great majority of Kenyan traditional healers are genuinely committed to improving the health of the people in their communities. And they are eager for knowledge about how to do that – especially as most of them are illiterate and have never received any formal medical training.

After that first workshop, 16 of the healers started advocating for the rights children with disabilities in their communities. Within 12 months they’d improved the lives of 312 kids and every year since they reached more and more children – most of whom have been hidden, neglected and abused by their families their whole lives. Best of all, now hundreds more healers have gone through these trainings and are supporting thousands of children with disabilities in Kenya.

I’m a global public health professional who’s been working in this field for two decades but in so many ways I’m just starting to understand the culture and traditions that impact health outcomes in Kenya. I look back on that first workshop and feel silly to have thought that these spiritual leaders would try to curse me. In so many ways they did the exact opposite.


To learn more about Kupenda’s Disability Advocacy Program, check out our open source Online Library of Resources.

To help Kupenda reach more traditional healer with disability sensitization training, please consider making a donation to support this work. Each workshop costs just $300 and improves the lives of 312 children every year.


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