by Rachel Muthoni
In a bid to keep their religious faith, some Kenyan parents do not take their children to hospitals, even for the most basic immunization. Such parents believe that only God heals and seeking conventional medicine is like worshiping idols.
Section 53(c) of the Constitution of Kenya gives all children indiscriminative right to access of health, nutrition and shelter. But the same constitution, under section 32(1), gives all Kenyans the freedom of thought, religion and conscience. While the law requires parents to seek conventional medicine including immunization for their children, parents who opt for “freedom of worship” ignore the children’s law. It is a clash between medicine, law and health.
On a Tuesday afternoon, the children’s magistrate Gerald Mutiso invited the elders of Church of the Holy Ghost in East Africa to explain why their followers do not seek medication. There were several court officials, including clerk and prosecutor, and the elders of the church. I was the only ‘guest’ invited by the magistrate because I had told him that I have interest in matters touching on children. I also had covered the case when Macharia had been charged.
My main interest in this story is to understand this religion and weigh its belief against conventional medicine versus the children’s right to quality healthcare. I believe I have a responsibility as a journalist to listen to both sides of a story in order to be objective. Perhaps highlighting a case such as this would make the government stricter on parents who fail to take their children for treatment. I want to know why parents would not feel the death of their children, even when they could have prevented such deaths.
All the ten elders present had three pages of papers, typed with over 60 bible verses, allegedly prohibiting going to hospital. “Lets go to Leviticus 26:14-26, where the bible states that God brings diseases to people who do not obey Him,” said the church’s priest, who for unknown reason refused to give his name even to the prosecutor. “Members of the Holy Ghost Church of East Africa keep off sin and are therefore, automatically ‘immune’ from contacting diseases,” the priest explained.
All the elders believed in praying for the sick and not worshiping idols by going to hospital.
Earlier in the chambers the prosecutor had demanded to know why one of the elders wore glasses, yet the church prohibited him from visiting a hospital. The glasses, Mungai explained, are not like tablets one has to swallow and the church’s problem was that taking medication is like worshipping idols. He further described how he did not swallow and was not injected with the glasses and so he had not broken God’s law.
When the prosecutor asked why he did not pray for healing instead of depending on spectacles, Mr Mungai changed gears and alleged to have bought the glasses from a hawker to guard his eyes against sharp sun rays.
After two hours of debate, the court ruled that it was not convinced that the bible indeed bans going to hospital. “I am employed to defend the Constitution and am required to follow the law, so you must take your children for immunization and treatment in hospitals regardless of your faith,” ruled the magistrate. For parents who still want to keep their faith and not take their children to hospital, the magistrate advised them to go to high court and file a case opposing inclusion of their children in the Children’s Bill of Rights.
Alternatively, the magistrate told them to approach their area Member of Parliament to table a bill in Parliament so that a law can be passed allowing members of their church not to take their children to hospital.
“We are an endangered species now, we must pray that God helps the government to come up with a law that protects our faith as we are the ones who believe in the true God,” said the priest, as members left one by one.
In another incidence, a father was jailed for two years for failing to follow a court order that required him to take his children to hospital. Joseph Njoroge, 48, had to serve the jail term for upholding his Kanitha wa Ngai (Church of God) faith. Njoroge hails from Nyahururu, Central Kenya. Though he had lost two children, one at three and another one at birth, Njoroge insisted that it was by God’s will that his children had died. “To live and to die is by the will of God, after all our maker has our dates of death at the palm of his hands,” Njoroge told court, insisting that he would never take his children for immunization.
In addition to lack of proper health care, children of these parents face the problem of lack of proper registration. In Kenya, a parent is supposed to produce an original copy of a child’s birth certificate when enrolling children to school. But since children whose parents submit to anti-conventional medicine faith are born at home, that means they are not registered. It is a hassle then when a parent wants to take a child to school without registration papers. In such cases, parents have to take time convincing government officials to issue them birth certificates. Most often, the parents bribe their way to getting the certificates.
Even after they get to school, children belonging to such faiths are excluded from other children. Mostly they stay together, discussing their faith and verses of the Bible that their parents have taught them since their tender ages. A social worker, Ms. Edith Nyaga, says such children are anti-social and spend time with their siblings discussing miracles God has performed in their lives.
Children from these churches are taught from a young age that they should not pursue medical treatment. This way, according to Nyaga, they cannot question the teachings of their faith or be tempted to use conventional medicine.
There are no official records of people subscribing to the anti-conventional medicine faiths in Kenya. It is impossible to establish how many mortality deaths occur due to parents’ failure to seek conventional medicine.
However, such churches are in many parts of the country including the Rift Valley, Nairobi, and the Eastern and Central provinces.
A report by the World Health Organization last year indicated a 21 percent rise in child mortality in 2010. Child mortality went up from 105 per 1,000 live births to 128 per the same number of live births. Yet, under its Millennium Development Goals, Kenya aims to reduce child mortality rate to 33 per 1,000 live births by 2015.
There still remains a big gap between the government law and subscribers of anti-conventional medicine faith. But though there is freedom of worship, and people should not be questioned about their faith, the government must do more than arrest parents who do not take their children to hospital. Chiefs and their assistants must monitor such incidents of women who fail to give birth in hospital or even take their children for immunization, if child mortality is to reduce.
About the author:
Rachel Muthoni is a Kenyan journalist. She holds an International Diploma in Journalism and Media Studies and is currently pursuing a Degree in Communications. She has worked in international and local media for the last seven years both in print journalism as well as photojournalism. Having grown up in a middle-class family in Nyeri district of Kenya’s Central Province, she had never experienced poverty first hand. However, she saw her friends in school skip lunch because their parents could not afford it, and attend school bare footed as they could not afford a pair of shoes. It is in curiosity of what poverty is that she developed a bias toward research and writing on issues relating to poverty, HIV, and the abuse of women and children particularly in slums and other marginalized areas. Her goal is to study at least up to a masters level and also to tell as many stories about under privileged people, that will change their lives for the better.