Masters Thesis

"It's the faith you have towards something which heals" herbs, herbalists, and healing in the western highlands of Kenya

Making sense of health practices requires attention to the lives and experiences of the individuals and collectivities involved in them, along with a basic understanding of the historical, sociocultural, political economic, and ecological contexts that structure and inform those practices and individuals. This applies to Iten, Kenya, a small town located in the western highlands of Kenya. Iten's plethora of both conventional health facilities and traditional herbalists, known as chepkerichinik, make it an intriguing place to study the interactions of traditional and western medicine. Based on four months of ethnographic fieldwork in Iten Kenya, this study explores the role chepkerichinik play as community healthcare providers, entrepreneurs, culture bearers, and the physical embodiments of Kalenjin tradition. Semi-structured interviews with sixteen Kalenjin herbalists reveal that chepkerichinik provide at least forty-two medical services to community members, and routinely base their treatments on herbal remedies that have been maintained in their families for multiple generations. The study concludes that chepkerichinik remain important purveyors of community healthcare, and provide services that not only address the major disease burdens of the community, but also "fill the gaps" where biomedical services are perceived to be the most deficient. Through describing the role of Kalenjin herbalists, the cultural contexts of their remedies, and the reality of interpenetrating medical pluralism, this work demonstrates the need for close, granular analyses of medical systems in an effort to understand the durability and mutability of tradition in the face of profound cultural changes.

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